Dudley E. Dawson is a reporter for Hawgs Illustrated. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Growing pains: Tough situations help O'Grady develop
Cheyenne O'Grady, Arkansas tight end, reacts after catching touchdown pass in the 2nd quarter Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
For most of his Arkansas career, Razorbacks tight end Cheyenne O’Grady has heard people say he has the size and all the talent to become an early round NFL draft choice and thus live comfortably the rest of his life.
The problem is those statements have always been followed by the word “but” when describing O’Grady (6-4, 251), who has caught 54 passes for 595 yards and nine touchdowns in his Razorbacks career.
Now a senior and playing in what amounts to a contract year, the Fayetteville native and son of Jessika O’Grady and late former Razorbacks basketball player Larry Marks is ready for the statements to stand on their own without a qualifier.
“I feel like over these years I have grown as a player and a man, and I owe a lot of that to (Arkansas tight ends) Coach (Barry) Lunney,” O’Grady said. “Coach Lunney has been such a big person in my life, such an important person in my life. I am really kind of surprised that he that he has stuck with me. He has always been on my side, and I am really grateful for that.
“He has helped develop me into a better person and hopefully a better husband down the road. He has taught me so many life lessons in this process, and I will be forever grateful. Hopefully, this last year we can have our best year together. He has been the perfect person for me.”
Marks, who played for Arkansas from 1987-1990, died at age 33 on June 14, 2000, while playing pickup basketball with some former teammates at The Jones Center in Springdale.
O’Grady was just 3 years old at that time.
“Early on, even in elementary school, I was just not the best kid,” O’Grady said. “I think it had something to do with my childhood, and I have just been fighting it all these years.
“I think in my junior year I started getting all these offers when I moved from quarterback to tight end, and I started realizing I might be able to get something done here.
“But I had developed those bad habits of doing things my way and not listening that it was hard to immediately get rid of those bad habits. Still to this day, I still have a few issues that I have to deal with every now and then, but I would like to say that I have completely changed my attitude about things.”
O’Grady missed the first two games last season because of disciplinary reasons and then did not catch any passes in the first two he was on the field.
But he rebounded to catch 30 passes for 400 yards and six touchdowns in the year’s final eight games.
He admits he had to get his head right about the coaching change from Bret Bielema to Chad Morris, who was not known for using the tight end at SMU.
“I had not really heard much about them,” O’Grady said. “They did not really have the talent at that position back at SMU. But I dug in some more, and I did see they had really successful tight ends at Clemson.
“I was kind of on the fence, on the border, so I just ended up sticking it out because I love this place. I love Arkansas, always have, grew up here, dad played here, of course. I was like I should just stick it out, my mom’s here, I love my teammates, so let’s just stick it out two more years.
“Next thing you know, I had a breakout year, plenty of opportunities, and I was able to capitalize on most of them. I am really glad that I stayed here.”
O’Grady should be one of the nominees for the Mackey Award, which honors the top collegiate tight end and has been won by former Razorbacks tight ends Hunter Henry and D.J. Williams.
“Winning the Mackey Award as the best tight end would be something great,” O’Grady said. “We have had a long list of great tight ends here in the past, and some have won it. I think it is because of the coaching staffs we have had here, and Coach Morris and the new staff are bringing the same thing to the table because they have that love for the tight ends.
“I think, just flashing back, we (tight ends) had eight catches in like the first three drives against Alabama, which is outstanding and a great feeling to have. We all had confidence.”
Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson won the 2018 Mackey Award, catching 49 passes for 760 yards and six touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore last season, and was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the first round.
“I thought that could be me next year if I can stay consistent in my behavior, my attitude, going to class and all that,” O’Grady said. “The opportunity is there. I have just got to execute.”
O’Grady thinks Kansas City’s Travis Kelce is an example of a tight end who has transformed his spot into more of an athletic position instead of another lineman.
“I saw Kelce last season take a bubble screen and run 60 yards for a touchdown,” O’Grady said. “That’s something like a wide receiver would do. I’ve watched (Indianapolis Colts tight end) Eric Ebron, and they use him as a receiver because we can create such mismatches, sometimes too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs.
“I think it can be just a really dominant position, and it is only going to get better from here.”
Arkansas lost tight end Austin Cantrell but welcomes Pulaski Academy star Hudson Henry (6-6, 230), who was ranked as the nation’s 2019 top tight end prospect nationally by services.
O’Grady started his career at Arkansas with the older Henry, who now plays in the NFL with the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I think he is going to be a great addition to what we are doing here,” O’Grady said. “I see Hunter when I look at him. It’s his ability to run. He’s big. He’s aggressive. I think he is going to bring some really good things to the table. He’s had his brother to help him. He’ll have us older guys and Coach Lunney, who I think is the best tight end coach in the country.”
Senior Chase Harrell (6-4, 215) is a former Kansas transfer who has made a move to tight end after being a receiver at Arkansas last season.
“I think he is super athletic in everything — out the field, in the weight room, running routes,” O’Grady said. “I think his biggest deficiency, as it would be anybody just moving to tight end, is blocking. It is just such a tough thing to do as far as fundamentals, knowing where you are going and where to get your hands, always moving your feet and those things. He has really come a long way in a short period of time, and it is really impressive.
“Everything else has come natural to him with route-running, catching the ball with his hands and keeping D-backs off of him when they are doing catch technique or something.”
Junior Grayson Gunter (6-6, 248), who redshirted with an injury in 2017, had four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in 2018 and is expected to have an expanded role this season.
“Grayson and I have developed a really good relationship, a friendship for three years now,” O’Grady said. “He used to be really small, too small to block honestly. But he has got his weight up to like 248 or 250 when he used to be stuck at 235.
“What is really good is that he has gained like 15 to 20 pounds and still is able to run like he used to do. His route-running has always been great, and I have learned from him.”
Arkansas also has a pair of walk-on tight ends in junior Blake Kern (6-4, 257) and senior Trey Purifoy (6-7, 237).
“I think three or four or five of us are going to play this year,” O’Grady said.
O’Grady watched this year’s NFL draft with an eye toward being at the 2020 one.
He is not presently viewed as a top five prospect in that draft as are two SEC prospects in Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam (6-5, 265) and Vanderbilt’s Jared Pickney (6-5, 255).
“It’s definitely something I think about, but I know the only way I am going to get to where I want to go is to do the right things on and off the field, and I believe I have matured to the point that is going to happen this season.”
O’Grady had plenty of options when he came out of high school, but Bielema talked him into signing with Arkansas.
“It feels just like yesterday that I was talking to Coach B about staying here,” O’Grady said. “I had plenty of other options, big schools — Oregon, Auburn, Ole Miss, Texas, Oklahoma, a lot of schools that are still doing big things to this day.
“But my heart was here in Fayetteville, and I wanted to see what happened. It has been a roller coaster ride; I think that is the best way to describe it, but I think some really good things have happened.”
O’Grady will have a couple of new quarterbacks throwing his way this year in SMU graduate transfer Ben Hicks and Texas A&M graduate transfer Nick Starkel, who has two years of eligibility left.
“He has really established himself as a leader,” O’Grady said of Hicks, who went through spring practice with Arkansas. “He doesn’t mind getting on you when you mess up. He’s been with Coach Morris at SMU, so he actually knows what he is doing with the offense. I’m sure he never forgot it.
“He is really confident and grades himself really hard. It shows how much he cares. He wants to have that starting position.”
Starkel arrived at Arkansas earlier this summer.
“I have got to meet him at a random scrimmage, and I like the things that he was talking about,” O’Grady said. “He is a real friendly guy and easy to talk to and brings a lot of positive energy. I think it is going to be a good battle between them.”
Arkansas has won just six of its last 26 games and was 2-10 in 2018.
“Of course we want to win every game, and that is set in stone, but I think this year we are going to have a winning season,” O’Grady said. “We are going to win more games than we lose for sure.”
A version of this story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated
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