Hogs keep TEs a valued position

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, March 30, 2018
Arkansas tight end Austin Cantrell leaps to make a catch while participating in a drill Wednesday, March 28, 2018, during practice at the university's practice facility on campus in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas tight end Austin Cantrell leaps to make a catch while participating in a drill Wednesday, March 28, 2018, during practice at the university's practice facility on campus in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Tight ends have enjoyed a prime position in the Arkansas Razorbacks’ offense for most of the last dozen years.

Not only have the Razorbacks produced two Mackey Award winners as the nation’s top tight end in D.J. Williams (2010) and Hunter Henry (2015) and put a handful of tight ends in the National Football League, they also dedicated large chunks of their playbook to two tight end sets under Bret Bielema the last five years.

However, the period between coaching staffs before Coach Chad Morris’ arrival at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, led to some uncertainty in the tight end room, as not all offenses go heavy on tight ends.

“I was kind of scared, honestly,” junior Cheyenne O’Grady said Thursday. “Before all the coaching staff and everything got here … I thought about transferring, getting out of here. And next thing you know 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.”

Now that the Chad Morris offense is in place, and Morris decided to retain tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. on the staff coordinator by Joe Craddock, it’s clear the tight ends will retain a prime place in the system.

Through 10 practices and two large-scale scrimmages, there has been little doubt the performers at tight end are frequent targets and key players for the Razorbacks.

“They’ve really had some productive practices during the entire spring,” Morris said after Wednesday’s scrimmage in which O’Grady had a team-high five receptions, including a touchdown catch from Ty Storey.

“I think they realize they kind of came in with a question mark of, how much are we going to be utilized? And now they’re looking at, when’s my next sub going to come on the field? I think that they understand their role.”

The Razorbacks are going to use tight ends in multiple ways, in motion as lead blockers and route runners, in-line players who perform traditional tight end functions, and split out to capitalize on match-ups.

“It’s definitely going to be different, but I think the load’s going to be about the same,” senior Jeremy Patton said early in spring. “[Morris] has had a lot of successful tight ends in the past.

“Really, our job is to be the utility guy on offense. We’re moving around. You’ll see us wide out, you’ll see us in the slot, you’ll see us in the backfield. So we’re really the guy that brings everything together for this offense.”

Said O’Grady, “The tight end is used everywhere in this offense. 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.”

Sophomore Grayson Gunter, who missed 2017 following shoulder surgery, did the latter in Wednesday’s scrimmage when he beat safety Micahh Smith over the middle from the slot for a 42-yard touchdown catch from Cole Kelley.

Austin Cantrell, one of the pound-for-pound strongest players on the squad at 6-3, 253 pounds, heads a grouping of more physical skill players, which includes Kendrick Jackson and Hayden Johnson, as H-back types who are versatile for blocking and catching purposes.

The tight end crew was without Patton, one of its top players, for Wednesday’s work as he wore a yellow no-practice jersey due to a stinger suffered on Monday.

Morris and Craddock put a big load on the dockets for the tight ends as far as knowledge of the schemes.

“I told you early in the spring, the hardest position on this offense to play outside of quarterback was the tight end position, because there are so many things you have to know and have to understand,” Morris said. “We’ve got depth there. Obviously I wish Jeremy could have played today.”

Tight ends accounted for three touchdown receptions in Arkansas’ first spring scrimmage and two more on Wednesday.

“I told y’all I was really excited about the tight ends we have,” Craddock said earlier this spring. “We’ve got to continue to get better in some of our blocking schemes, but to see those guys being targeted in the red zone and to see them make plays was huge. … I’m really excited about what we’ve got at the position.”

Tight ends ranked fourth through sixth among the Razorbacks’ leading receivers in 2017.

O’Grady was fourth with 21 catches for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cantrell (13-85) was fifth and Patton (11-189), the top junior college tight end prospect in the country in the 2017 recruiting class was sixth.

There are solid credentials throughout the position.

Gragg, a 6-4, 231-pound junior from Dumas, was the top-rated recruit in the state in 2015 who had offers from numerous SEC schools, Notre Dame and others. Gragg is looking to build on his five-catch sophomore season.

Gunter caught a 29-yard pass in his home state of Mississippi, his first career catch, to trigger a first-half touchdown drive in a 58-42 victory at Mississippi State in 2016.

Tight Ends Glance

RETURNING STARTERS Austin Cantrell (10 starts in 2017), Jeremy Patton (6)

LOSSES None

WHO’S BACK Cheyenne O’Grady (1 start in 2017), Will Gragg, Grayson Gunter

WHO’S NEW Trey Purifoy

WALK-ONS Blake Kern, Jackson Pace, Purifoy

ANALYSIS The veteran tight ends have been frequent favorite targets for the quarterbacks through the first half of spring. While there won’t likely be the same number of two tight end sets as there had been in the previous offense, there will be some formations with multiple tight ends, and their use as lead blockers will be common. Additionally, the tight ends will work in the slot and split wide in the new regime, meaning their knowledge of the entire playbook is paramount.

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