O'Grady embracing opportunities in new offense

By: Dudley E. Dawson
Published: Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Hawgs Illustrated/BEN GOFF 
Colton Jackson (from left), Arkansas tackle, Cheyenne O'Grady (85), Arkansas tight end, and Johnny Gibson, Arkansas tackle, celebrate after O'Grady scored a touchdown in the third quarter against Ole Miss Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.
Photo by Ben Goff
Hawgs Illustrated/BEN GOFF Colton Jackson (from left), Arkansas tackle, Cheyenne O'Grady (85), Arkansas tight end, and Johnny Gibson, Arkansas tackle, celebrate after O'Grady scored a touchdown in the third quarter against Ole Miss Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.

— Once upon a time under former head coach Bret Bielema, it seemed like Arkansas had more tight ends on the roster than it did wide receivers, even though that wasn’t truly the case.

But new Razorback head football coach Chad Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock — who didn’t have even have a tight end when they took over at SMU three seasons ago — feel blessed with the contingent they found upon arriving in Fayetteville.

Even without transferring Will Gragg, the roster still has veterans in juniors Cheyenne O’Grady (6-4, 248), Austin Cantrell (6-3, 253), Jeremy Patton (6-7, 258) and fullback-tight end Hayden Johnson (6-2, 261), and redshirt sophomore Grayson Gunter (6-6, 234) as scholarship options.

“We didn’t have a single (tight end) on the roster (at SMU),” Craddock said. “We’re a two-back, run-oriented team. We’ve got to have a tight end.

“When I look at it, that’s the most excited I am about a position that we have. So many guys like that, that we can play and play at a high level.”

SMU’s tight ends accounted for just 41 catches for 553 yards and nine touchdowns in Morris’ three years, but he used them plenty while at Tulsa and Clemson, and has two former tight ends in the NFL from that time.

“Honestly, I had never even heard of him before he came here,” O’Grady said. “When they said he was head coach, I was like, ‘I don’t even know who that is. This is going to be interesting.’”

SMU’s non-use of tight ends was enough to make O’Grady wonder if he needed to move on.

“I was kind of scared, honestly,” O’Grady said. “Before all the coaching staff and everything got here, when I heard everything, I thought about transferring, getting out of here.

“… But I gave it a shot and here we are. We’re probably one of the most valuable positions in this offense, and we’re loving every bit of it.”

He learned that Morris and Cradock love tight ends as evidenced by Arkansas native Charles Clay catching 43 passes for 526 yards in Morris’ year at Tulsa while former Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett was at the Mackey Award runner-up to Arkansas’ Hunter Henry in 2015.

O’Grady, who had 21 catches for 132 yards and two scores as a sophomore after just three catches for 63 yards and a touchdown as a freshman, loved getting to know the new offense this spring.

“The tight end is used everywhere in this offense,” O’Grady said. “We’re on the line, we’re off the line, we’re split out, we’re everywhere. We’re used in every aspect of our offense. I’m having the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been here,” O’Grady said.

O’Grady shined in spring practices and capped it with two touchdowns in the spring game, including a 53-yard catch and run from quarterback Ty Storey.

“He’s a big target and for us to play fast and be the most explosive offense in the country, that tight end has got to be a versatile guy,” Morris said. “He has got to be able to stretch the field and push the ball down there.”

O’Grady, the former Fayetteville High star and son of late former Arkansas basketball player Larry Marks, admits that he has grown up a lot since becoming a Razorback. Luckily for him, tight ends coach Barry Lunney, Jr., who is a holdover from the previous staff, has been his lone position coach during that time.

“Coach Lunney and I have had like a love-hate relationship, but at the end of the day, we love each other as much as anybody else,” O’Grady said. “We have been through a lot of good things and bad things, and it has been for the better. He has helped me develop into a young man on and off the field, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Lunney has seen the growth.

“Yes, he and I have butted heads a few times, but he knows I care about him and we have all just been trying to get all that natural talent out of him,” Lunney said. “I really feel like he has grown and is just about to get it.”

Lunney sees positives in the group.

“We do have a lot of experience,” Lunney said. “I have four or five guys that have caught a ball in a game, played snaps in a game. …We have talent, physical skill sets, and I think they are excited to get a fresh start and kind of rebuild their brand.”

O’Grady, who also had offers from Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon and many others, was rated as the No. 2 tight end in the country by ESPN after catching 41 passes for 766 yards and 11 touchdowns his senior season at Fayetteville High.

Cantrell started 10 games in 2017 and Patton six with O’Grady starting a game as well.

“I feel like that I have been coming along each year and now that I have the maturity to be the best I can be, I think this can be my coming-out year,” O’Grady said.

Patton, who had 11 catches for 189 yards last season after arriving from Arizona Western as the nation’s top junior college tight end, is pleased as well with the activity of the tight ends in the new offense.

“It’s definitely going to be different, but (Morris) has had a lot of success with tight ends in his offense,” Patton said. “Our job as tight ends in this offense is to be utility guys. We are moving around. You will see us in the slot, you will see us in the backfield, so we are really the guys that will bring this offense around.”

He is also happy that Lunney is still around.

“We have got a guy that is comfortable with us, that knows who we are, so that takes away one other thing we would have to learn,” Patton said. “He knows our strengths and weaknesses pretty well, so we don’t just have to start over with a whole new position coach.”

Cantrell has actually been on the field for the most plays of the group and has 26 career catches — 13 in each of his first two years — for 205 yards and a touchdown.

Lunney likes what he has seen from Cantrell this spring.

“Austin, right now, is the one guy that is the one constant that we have,” Lunney said. “We feel like he’s kind of proven himself worthy of being the starting tight end right now. The other parts of that, whether we’re in two tights or even three tights at times, it’s a little bit of a revolving door.”

Cantrell has been known mostly as a blocker his first two seasons, but looked good in the passing game as well this spring.

“We’ve been real pleased with where he’s at in the passing game,” Lunney said. “He feels better. He looks better running. His conditioning level has been something we’ve harped on. He really took that to heart and it’s shown up.

“Real pleased with where he’s at right now. We feel like he’s got really good ball skills. He catches the ball naturally. He’s gaining more and more confidence in that area.”

Johnson has lined up at fullback for the majority of his career snaps, but has caught seven passes for 74 yards so far in his career. Gunter had one catch for 29 yards as a true freshman before redshirting last year because of an injury.

“I think every single one of these guys brings something to the table for us and as a group, I think they give us a lot to work with,” Lunney said. “I think sometimes experience is not necessarily maturity, so that’s one area we can work in, but I feel really good about where we are headed with this group.”

This article originally appeared in the June edition of Hawgs Illustrated

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