FAYETTEVILLE — In 2011, it took until late in the season for Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg to finally make an impact. In 2012, it only took until the second quarter of the season opener against Jacksonville State.
The 6-foot-3 senior from Warren finished with seven catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the 49-24 win against the Gamecocks. It was the first multi-TD game for Gragg in his 39th appearance and 16th start for the Razorbacks. He was close to career highs in receptions (eight) and yardage (139) which were both set against Mississippi State in 2011.
“You can’t say enough about guys like that. He’s a mismatch on guys,” Arkansas head coach John L. Smith said. “The thing Chris has worked hard on is becoming more physical, a better blocker, all those things. He’s a legit player. You’ll see us going to him a ton.”
In the first quarter, Gragg caught two passes. His first was for 24 yards to the Jacksonville State 37. While Arkansas appeared to be driving for a game-opening touchdown, two plays later Tyler Wilson dropped the ball, which was picked up by a Gamecock.
After Jacksonville State’s field goal attempt was blocked by Byran Jones, Gragg set up the Razorbacks’ first TD with a 31-yard catch to the Gamecocks’ 15. Four plays later, Kody Walker bulled in for a 7-0 Arkansas lead.
But it wasn’t a perfect night for Gragg.
Early in the second quarter, he caught a short pass but had the ball knocked loose by Jacksonville State’s Nick Johnson. The Gamecocks recovered the ball at the Arkansas 35 and took a 14-7 lead just five plays later.
“I was just fighting for some yards,” Gragg said of the fumble. “I think somebody got their hand in there and knocked it out. I just have to protect it better when I’m in the pile, in traffic like that and fighting for yards.”
Gragg got his redemption, however.
On the Razorbacks’ next possession, the Gamecocks showed they were blitzing on second-and-4 at their own 30.
“They were pressuring us a lot. There was one series where they pressured us 11 straight plays,” Wilson said. “With that, you go to your blitz checks and we like throwing against that.”
Wilson changed the play and targeted Gragg as his primary receiver. The 30-yard TD tied the score at 14-14 with 11:22 left in the second quarter.
“It was a blitz check we made on the sideline, we had worked it up all week. There was a linebacker holding me in man(-to-man) and that’s the matchup we wanted,” Gragg said. “When they made the check, you immediately go ‘OK, how am I going to beat this linebacker?’ And when the ball’s in the air, those are the ones when you’re open when it seems like the ball hangs up there forever.”
On the next Arkansas series, Gragg caught an easier 4-yard TD pass that gave the Razorbacks the lead for good at 21-14.
“He did some really good things. He came back from the fumble — which should have never happened — and caught two touchdowns, made a bunch of plays,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “Chris is a great talent, he’s someone who has to show up and be ready to go. When he’s playing at his top level of play, people have a tough time covering him.”