This is the fifth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2013 Razorbacks. Up next: Running backs.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry understands the game.
Throughout his recruitment, coach after coach insisted the tight end position was critical to the style of offense being played at their respective schools. So Henry’s challenge was figuring out which schools would back up those words. And which ones were best suited for Henry, one of the top tight ends in the country.
Henry sounded as if he found a perfect fit after two weeks of preseason practice at Arkansas.
“Tight ends are really going to be used here,” Henry said. “We’re really going to be able to use mismatches here. There’s going to be a lot of tight ends on the field at one time and many times throughout the game. And so, throughout, we’re just going to continue to embrace those roles. It’s going to be fun.”
The coaching staff and offensive philosophy at Arkansas has changed, but it appears the emphasis on the tight end position remains the same for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas has big plans for a position that recently has produced two NFL Draft picks in D.J. Williams and Chris Gragg. So the Razorbacks have welcomed an eager group that offers a variety of possibilities for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“They see talent in the room,” said Arkansas tight end Austin Tate, who has been sidelined after undergoing shoulder surgery. “They see potential. All they want to do is bring out the best in us. So all we're doing is trying to fulfill their expectations.”
Figuring out the best fit for each role has been one of Arkansas’ goals.
Who is best blocker on the edge? Who works well in the passing game? Who can line up in the slot and create a mismatch? Who can get move a defensive lineman off the line of scrimmage at the goal line?
The questions have been evaluated over two weeks. Mitchell Loewen is regarded as the first-teamer in the group, but he, Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle and Alex Voelzke have gotten chances to show their strengths and weaknesses.
“I feel like we don't have one tight end who's well-rounded in every area like a normal tight end, like (New England Patriots tight end Rob) Gronkowski or someone like that,” Loewen said. “But we've got different aspects, and that's why we have so many different tight end packages, because we're bringing in different guys.
Tate is the only veteran, serving primarily as a backup to Williams and Gragg throughout his career. So position coach Barry Lunney Jr. said the young group has welcomed the opportunity to show its potential this preseason.
“It's challenging because from the script or the strategy standpoint that we're doing offensively, we're using them in a lot of different capacities, so mentally it's straining on those guys,” Lunney Jr. said. “There's a lot to learn, a lot to learn for them. So that presents a challenge, but it's one that we welcome in the room.
“We want that, because the more we prove we can handle those roles, the more they expand for us, so it's not like we just got one tight end out there doing one thing.”
Loewen’s primary value is in a blocking role. Arkansas has been impressed with the physical play he has brought to the position in his limited time on the field.
Loewen sat out most of the spring because of an ankle injury. But he showed enough to be named the starter heading into the summer.
“What we've learned about Mitchell is he knows what to do and he knows how to do it,” Lunney Jr. said. “He can be a pretty dynamic blocker and a tight end, so we're excited about that. It's a work in progress though with him about learning and mastering the position. Because he has moved around so much and he hasn't played tight end for three years, sometimes we forget about that.”
Henry is young as well, but should be equally important in other ways.
At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, Henry isn’t as dominant physically as the rest of the group, yet. So blocking is not necessarily his strength. But he has proven to be a valuable receiver, who has the potential to become one of Brandon Allen’s favorite targets.
Henry caught four passes for 35 yards in Arkansas’ open scrimmage this month.
Afterward, coach Bret Bielema said Henry will help the Razorbacks right away.
“We want Hunter Henry for sure. For sure, for sure,” Bielema said. “I mean he's a guy that has to be in our game plan. Extremely gifted and the best thing about Hunter Henry is it's only beginning to scratch the surface. He’s just an incredibly intelligent young man who has the sky in front of him. The sky's the limit.”
Bielema has explained how important the tight end position is to the Razorbacks in a number of ways the past two months. One of them: Bielema has awarded six scholarships to walk-ons since arriving and two of them have gone to tight ends.
Loewen was the recipient of one after spring practice. Voelzke — who caught two passes last season — was among four players awarded scholarships Sunday.
“They’ve told us to embrace whatever we throw at you,” Tate said before his injury. “We’re only going to do best for the team and that’s all we want. If we’re going to throw eight tight ends out there, we’re going to throw eight tight ends out there.”
It’s a bit exaggerated, but Henry said Tate’s point is clear.
Arkansas plans to use its tight ends in a number of ways this season.
“We’re going to fit as many as we can just to try to create mismatches,” Henry said.
A Closer Look At ... TIGHT ENDS
Best of the Bunch: Mitchell Loewen — Arkansas has been impressed with Loewen since settling him into the position in the spring. The former walk-on defensive end and linebacker is regarded as a physical blocker who fits into the Razorbacks’ power-running plans. He didn’t get much practice time last spring because of an ankle injury, but it was enough for Loewen to be awarded a scholarship.
Watch Out For: Hunter Henry — The Razorbacks need a dependable receiver at the position and Henry has shown plenty of promise. The highly touted freshman has not disappointed in his first two weeks. Coach Bret Bielema has already said the Razorbacks have to put Henry in the game plan. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as one of Brandon Allen’s most dependable receivers despite being just a freshman.
Biggest Strength: The injury bug plagued Arkansas at the position last season, but it’s clear the new staff has addressed the depth concerns. Veteran Austin Tate will miss several games because of shoulder surgery, but the Hogs still have plenty of options at the position with Loewen, Henry, Alex Voelzke and Jeremy Sprinkle.
Biggest Question: Will the relatively inexperienced players produce? Henry and Sprinkle haven’t played a down for the Razorbacks. Voelzke caught two passes as a reserve. Loewen started on game at tight end in 2012, but it was basically out of necessity. The group – with Tate sidelined – will have to learn on the fly in 2012.
Projected Starter: Mitchell Loewen, So., (Started one game in 2012)
Other Contributors: Hunter Henry, Fr., (N/A); Alex Voelzke, So., (2 catches, 28 yards, TD in 2012); Jeremy Sprinkle, RS-Fr. (N/A); Brad Taylor, Sr., (N/A)
That Figures: 2 — Number of receptions Arkansas’ tight ends — outside of the injured Tate — have logged in their collegiate career. Both belong to Voelzke.
Quotable: “I was always training and trying to work hard to prepare myself to get ready to play. I wanted that mentality coming in. I thought I could help out this year. I worked hard this offseason and have really tried to get ready for the SEC and just trying to continue to prepare myself.” — Henry on preparing to play as a freshman
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau