FAYETTEVILLE — The plan for Arkansas' tight ends group against then-No. 23 Texas A&M last Saturday was to continually rotate bodies in and out to keep guys fresh.
It didn't quite come to fruition, but none of Barry Lunney's players were to blame. Senior tight end Cheyenne O'Grady just, as he often does in AT&T Stadium, made his presence felt, and the Razorbacks rode their star playmaker often and in key situations.
For the game, the Fayetteville native finished with a game-high eight catches on 13 targets for a career-high 91 yards. Lunney said Wednesday evening it was the most complete game O'Grady has played, from top to bottom, in a while.
"Played good the other night," Lunney said. "He wasn’t perfect by any means, but as far as just the week of preparation and the way he stayed engaged in the game and competed, that was his best game. We need more of that this coming week.
"It was really more to do with the hot hand, and I think we could all recognize it," he continued. "I think if I'd have taken him out then my wife would have been able to recognize, 'You just took the guy out who had the hot hand.' She would have been able to recognize that as well."
On Tuesday, O'Grady was recognized as the John Mackey Tight End of the Week for his play against the Aggies. The game also marked the second consecutive season in which he led Arkansas in receiving yards in the Southwest Classic. O'Grady returned from a suspension in last season's game and totaled 77 yards on three receptions.
Through five games, he leads all SEC tight ends in yards (243), catches (18) and yards after the catch (122). He was terrific in picking up extra yardage in Saturday's loss, gaining 38 on four grabs from quarterback Nick Starkel and 18 on four passes from backup Ben Hicks, who entered in the second quarter in place of the injured Starkel.
Lunney noted that O'Grady is at the threshold of playing too many snaps.
"It's getting up there quite a bit, and he's held up pretty well as far as conditioning and being able to run in the fourth quarter," he added. "He looked fresh, you know, and he was making all those catches for us."
While O'Grady's performance against Texas A&M was impressive, he wasn't satisfied. He should have had at least one more catch, he insisted. On fourth-and-5 with less than one minute to play, Hicks' desperation heave intended for his tight end 14 yards downfield bled through the hands of an Aggies defender, and the ball hit O'Grady in the shoulder pads.
After sitting alone on the turf for several moments following the play, O'Grady and Lunney walked side by side off the field and up the Razorbacks' tunnel back to the locker room. The tight end was emotional and red-faced, frustrated and feeling as if he had not done enough. Lunney provided words of encouragement as his right hand firmly gripped the collar of his star's jersey above the nameplate.
"That was just time for a coach that's been with a guy for five years after a tough moment," Lunney explained. "He played his heart out. (I was) just trying to encourage him and get him off the field. Tough loss. Obviously, seniors have a tendency to take those more difficult, more personal, than others because they know that's their last chance they're going to be in that stadium.
"I was encouraging him. For the most part, that's between he and I."
O'Grady, however, did detail the spirited conversation, and he thanked Lunney for his unwavering support.
"I have so much emotion for this game and love for this game. It means everything to win, and losing hurts so bad," he said. "This is my last year, my last rodeo. It just really hurt. I kind of broke down in tears and (Lunney) was there for me. He’s always there for me, man.
"He just kind of told me how that’s the Devils’ speak. I said, ‘I don’t know, I just can’t keep doing this.’ He said, 'That’s the Devil talking, man. You’ve got to purge that out. We’re going to get this fixed.'"
In the interview room for the first time since the season began, Lunney was asked to recall O'Grady's 62-yard touchdown against Colorado State in Week 3, a phenomenal catch and run in which he broke five tackles on his way to the end zone.
It was "one of those head-shaking deals," said Lunney, who began watching O'Grady play as a sophomore at Fayetteville High. It did not surprise him one bit.
"He just has the knack for doing that," he added. "He’s just a load to tackle and he just has something innate in him. I think I joked with him saying, ‘That drill we did really paid off.’ I don’t think there’s many drills for simulating that many people trying to tackle you and you running through it.
"That’s something he’s always brought to the table, and we certainly need that from him down the stretch here."