Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
ARKANSAS POSITION ANALYSIS Tight ends:
Coaches searching for depth, blockers
Arkansas tight end Hudson Henry is shown running a route during a preseason practice on Sept. 4, 2020 in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Ninth in a series previewing position groups for the University of Arkansas football team.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Just when the University of Arkansas had its "Tight End U" mojo going, the Razorbacks hit a year like 2020.
The Razorbacks are looking for depth and scouting for more ferocious blocking out of the position with less than two weeks remaining before the season opener against Georgia.
The comings and goings at the position have felt like a turnstile during training camp.
Only time will tell if the next D.J. Williams, Hunter Henry, AJ Derby, Jeremy Sprinkle or Cheyenne O'Grady emerges at the position which produced two Mackey Award winners in a span of six years in the last decade, with Williams (2010) and Henry (2015).
The Razorbacks have a legacy talent and a highly touted pass catching prospect at the spot in Hudson Henry, a redshirt freshman who got slowed in camp last season and finished with three catches.
However, that is all the returning production at the spot where O'Grady was a team co-leader with 33 receptions in only seven games.
First-year offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has said he will tailor the schemes to fit around how well the tight end can incorporate into the system. The previous Chad Morris regime typically ran one tight end, while the Bret Bielema systems coordinated by Jim Chaney and Dan Enos frequently employed two and sometimes more.
"Just a well-rounded guy," Briles said when asked what he's looking for at the spot. "We've got to have a physical player at that position, somebody that will finish on blocks, and then a guy that's versatile enough to get out on the edge and be a real threat in the throw game.
"The tight end position for us offensively, they're not told what to do all the time. ... and so we've got to have a guy who can think fast, react fast, line up fast and play fast. That's kind of what we're looking at. We've got a host of guys that are playing that position and getting a lot of reps and those guys are all progressing."
Briles said earlier this month that the coaches hadn't found "the guy" at tight end yet.
Last week, Coach Sam Pittman talked about trying to reach the point where the offense could feel comfortable running two tight end sets.
"Our tight ends are young for the most part," Pittman said on his radio show last week. "That doesn't mean they can't play. They're inexperienced.
"Right now, we're a little more comfortable playing in "11" personnel, which is one tight end [and one back], but we're trying to work for depth and trying to work for if we wanted to be a two tight end team that we could get them both on the field at the same time."
The veteran in position coach Jon Cooper's room is Blake Kern, a senior from Lamar who looks the part at 6-4, 269 pounds.
Tight ends glance
Returning starters None
Losses C.J. O'Grady (6 starts in 2019), Grayson Gunter (6), Chase Harrell, Hayden Johnson
Who's back Blake Kern, Hudson Henry
Who's new Marcus Henderson, Collin Sutherland, Blayne Toll
Walk-ons Nathan Bax, Nathan Johnson
Analysis It appears as if the progress of the guys at this group will dictate how often they’ll be on the field and how much they’ll be incorporated into the passing game. Clearly, Pittman would like to be able to run out one or two tight ends who could serve as extensions of the tackle spot and handle defensive ends and linebackers in tight formations. How the tight ends stack up receptions this season is still to be determined.
"I feel like all of us are kind of eager to get in there and get some '12' personnel and get more tight ends on the field," Kern said. "Our room is hungry to get on the field and be physical. I feel like in the past couple of weeks we've kind of integrated '12' personnel and we keep telling Coach Cooper we want some '13' personnel, but we haven't put that in yet."
Kern said the blocking component is obviously critical for the tight ends.
"I think we're working every day to do what they're asking us to do between the tackles and I feel like that's the No. 1 thing for our team is running the ball," Kern said. "I think we've taken that and kind of ran with it and are trying to do what they're asking us to do."
Henry has made a few exceptional catches in camp, including a one-hand grab last week.
It is the physical part of the game he has to improve on, similar to his brother Hunter, as he was used to splitting out while at Pulaski Academy.
Nathan Bax, a transfer from Illinois State, and signee Collin Sutherland have been in Cooper's position group throughout camp with Kern and Henry.
The rest of his cast has been a series of cameo appearances, come-and-gos, and welcome backs.
Blayne Toll, a 6-5, 234-pounder from Hazen who signed as a defensive end, transitioned to tight end during the summer, moved back to defensive end in camp, and is now back on the offensive side again. His frame is essentially how the tight end position is drawn up on a coach's wish list.
Signee Eric Thomas from Pensacola, Fla., spent a few practices with the group when Toll returned to defensive end but promptly returned to defense and was working with the ends on Monday.
And then there's Marcus Henderson, who had been running at second team left tackle behind Myron Cunningham earlier in camp while wearing No. 56.
The true freshman from Memphis went to tight end and picked up No. 83 last week and is still there this week. In Thursday night's practice at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Henderson showed a real desire to fire out to the perimeter for blocking in the team's bunch-formation drill work. He didn't always make contact but he showed an eagerness for it.
"He caught a couple of balls tonight," Pittman said Thursday. "You know we're trying to get some depth there ... wherever he ends up on the depth chart. The bottom line is he was doing really well at tackle.
"I sat down with Coach Cooper and Coach [Brad] Davis and said, 'Hey look now, we have tackles, several, three to four tackles in there, let's move him over to tight end and see if we can have a physical blocker in there, more physical blockers in there.' And he can catch the ball. He actually did that some in high school."
Kern said Henderson has been a great addition, brings a lot of an offensive lineman's mentality and what Cooper calls 'O-line lingo' to the position.
"Physicality is something that he brings to our room and just a knowledge base as an O-lineman," Kern said. "He brings that to us, because we're picking his brain. Because they live in a different world over there. It's a hard, physical game for them, and he brings that to us."
Pittman's said the coaching staff has a firm commitment to creating depth and versatility all over the field due to potential personnel setbacks with covid-19. That holds true at tight end.
"We have to get him ready," Pittman said of Henderson. "He obviously knows the offense. Very, very easy transition for him as far as the blocking goes. Certainly the routes and things of that nature we're going to have to do a full-fledged charge on getting him ready mentally on getting ready to run routes."
Pittman equated Henderson's move during camp to his former pupil Andrew Thomas switching from left tackle to right tackle about two weeks away from the season opener in 2017.
"He was a freshman, moved him from left to right and he started on the national runner-up team, so it can be done," Pittman said. "We're trying to accelerate him as fast as we possibly can."
Kern, who said he's living a dream by playing for the Razorbacks, attended Arkansas games as a youngster and is well aware of the legacy of great tight ends.
"Oh yeah, for sure," he said. "We have guys on our wall that obviously we see every day and we're aware of that. I've seen Hunter Henry play and somebody I idolize is D.J. Williams and all of them.
"We've had some great ones since then, like Jeremy Sprinkle, and I played with him."
Now the group wants to join the legacy left by their predecessors.
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