Position Analysis: Hogs produce NFL-ready players at tight end

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, August 27, 2017
Arkansas tight end Austin Cantrell takes a break during practice Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas tight end Austin Cantrell takes a break during practice Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Tight ends have played a vital role of the Arkansas Razorbacks offense for nearly a decade, and there is no pullback in sight.

Even before the arrival of Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Dan Enos, D.J. Williams won the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end in 2010.

Tight ends glance

RETURING STARTER Austin Cantrell (5 starts in 2016)

LOSSES Jeremy Sprinkle (11 starts)

WHO’S BACK Cheyenne O’Grady, Jack Kraus, Will Gragg, Grayson Gunter

WHO’S NEW Jeremy Patton

WALK-ON Blake Kern

ANALYSIS Cantrell is expected to provide tough in-line blocking and also some lead blocking from the “F” motion tight end spot, but he also has good hands. O’Grady and Gragg have the potential to become the seam-busting type in the mode of Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle that can beat linebackers and safeties downfield. Kraus does a little bit of everything. Patton made a move late in camp and is expected to have a big impact among the mostly new corps of pass catchers.

Now, under the guidance of position coach Barry Lunney Jr. in the Enos attack, tight ends keep making their mark.

Hunter Henry took the Mackey Award for the Razorbacks again in 2015, then was taken 35th overall in the 2016 Draft after A.J. Derby (2014), Chris Gragg (2013) and before Jeremy Sprinkle (2017).

All four are still on NFL rosters.

Tight ends -- sometimes two or three on a given play -- thrive for the Razorbacks during a time when Spread attacks emphasize smaller, quicker pass catchers.

This season, Lunney supervises a group of five vying for playing time as Arkansas approaches its season opener on Thursday against Florida A&M.

And if not for the recent decision to redshirt sophomore Grayson Gunter, tight end would be a six-man competition.

Redshirting Gunter, Bielema said, will allow him to develop the strength necessary to have an impact in the running game.

It also creates one year of separation between Gunter and sophomores Austin Cantrell, Cheyenne O'Grady and Will Gragg, who came in as the nation's top tight end class in 2015 before they all redshirted.

The deep pack is headed by Cantrell, who saw reps behind Jeremy Sprinkle last season and played enough to catch 13 passes for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Cantrell, from Roland, Okla., is known for exceptional blocking, and is lighter on his feet after cutting for 272 pounds in the spring to 253 pounds this fall.

"I'm able to get in and out of my cuts better and change directions better," Cantrell said.

Cantrell, with a muscular 6-3 build, strikes a much different figure than Henry and Sprinkle, 6-5 athletes with premier tight end speed.

"Yeah, he's a little shorter, a little thicker," Lunney said. "Not to take anything away from Hunter or Jeremy or A.J., but he's more powerful than those guys. I don't know the statistics, but I'd be willing to venture that pound for pound on our football team, if he's not the most powerful guy we've got, he's in the top three or maybe top five.

"He's very powerful and really good, really proficient as a blocker. We feel very good about him blocking people in our league."

Cantrell moved ahead of O'Grady and Gragg last year because of the way he attacked the playbook, but his classmates are closing in, creating a good battle for playing time with juniors Jack Kraus and Jeremy Patton, the nation's top junior college tight end prospect by ESPN.com in 2017.

All five are expected to earn varying levels of playing time.

"We use our tight ends in different ways," Bielema said. "Will Gragg in particular, and C.J. [O'Grady] and also Jack Kraus have all had very nice fall camps. Jeremy Patton has continued to come along and do very, very well. Then obviously Austin Cantrell. I think you'll see five of those guys play."

Lunney said the Razorbacks have had games where four tight ends have all gotten quality snaps, and he said he thinks that number can expand.

"Hey, listen, if you can provide something to help us win a game and we're pretty confident in that, I think we're going to find a way to help you try to apply those when it comes to game time," Lunney said.

"It's hard to put a finger on the exact number. It's different than some other positions. It's almost like a wide receiver group in a lot of ways. You see a lot of those guys rotate in to keep them fresh. We haven't formulated that yet, but certainly we've set a precedent in the past by using a multiple amount of them and I don't see that changing."

O'Grady, a 6-4, 253, from Fayetteville, said he had to change his approach to begin making an impact. He decided to go by his full name Cheyenne, rather than C.J. last year, and he came on strong late last season with a touchdown catch in the Belk Bowl as part of his three receptions for 63 yards.

"Early on, when I first got here, I kind of took it as I was one of the better players, kind of took that approach and that's not going to get it done in this league," O'Grady said. "Over these past two years that I've been here, I watched film, just took the next step that I needed to do, and it's put me in the right position. I just have to keep pressing."

Cantrell talked up his position mates.

"Patton's actually surprised me," he said. "I didn't think he was going to be as good at blocking as he is, and he's got good ball skills too.

"He came in and he had to learn some stuff and he's finally getting it down. And Will Gragg, I've never seen him run like he is now. He's a runner. And C.J. is C.J. He can catch the ball. He's a heck of a ball player."

Kraus, a 6-5, 248, from Bentonville, is often cited for his array of skills.

"Jack is kind of a Swiss Army knife reliever with that group," Lunney said.

Even with a large number of tight ends, personnel can fluctuate from day to day in practice, including several days recently when Patton sat out with a hip issue and Gragg, 6-4, 254, from Dumas, missed time with a concussion.

"They had a full plate," Lunney said. "I thought it was good, but it's certainly good to have those two guys back."

Patton, 6-5, 250, of Indianapolis, has tried to blend in as quickly as possible.

"We look at it as friendly competition, so there's no animosity between one another," Patton said. "You've got Jack Kraus, who's a great leader. ... And you've got Austin Cantrell, who leads by his play. We all get along well. They've helped me so much. They're telling me the right things to do and how to do it. They're good guys."

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