This is the fifth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Linebackers
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney believed there was plenty of potential at tight end as the Razorbacks wrapped up spring practice.
Hunter Henry would be back for his sophomore season after earning SEC All-Freshman honors last fall. Jeremy Sprinkle was developing. And former quarterback AJ Derby quickly showed his potential after moving to the position late in the spring.
Nothing has changed Chaney’s opinion after two weeks of preseason camp.
“I think they were good before they got here and I think they are still a pretty solid group of players,” Chaney said. “I can’t say that anything has surprised me or I’ve learned anything. They are what we think they are: they’re a pretty good group.”
Arkansas believes it has more weapons to turn to in the passing attack and it’s evident at tight end, which was little more than a one-man show in the passing offense last season. Henry, who was responsible for 28 of the group’s 35 receptions in 2014, should have help as he works with Derby and Sprinkle to form a trio that could offer matchup problems for defensive coordinators.
It was evident last Saturday, when Sprinkle was Arkansas’ leading receiver during a 107-play scrimmage in Razorback Stadium. The sophomore hauled in a 53-yard reception on a deep ball by Brandon Allen in the early minutes, caught a 27-yard touchdown pass a little later and finished with 91 yards on three receptions.
Position coach Barry Lunney Jr. said it’s a glimpse of what the Hogs envision out of a tight end position that has been vital to Bret Bielema coached teams.
“We think all three of those guys can stretch the field vertically,” Lunney said. “None of them run quite as well as Jeremy does when he gets in full stride. Hunter is probably our most consistent guy. Jeremy is the guy that can separate more downfield because of his stride length. And AJ is probably the quickest to get there.
“All three have some kind of unique qualities in how they route run. But I think all three are trusted by the quarterback and are trusted by us.”
It has left the Razorbacks considering plenty of options in preseason camp.
Tight ends can line up in the backfield as fullbacks. They’ll be on the line of scrimmage. They’ll even line up in the slot or be split out wide.
Sprinkle said the versatility comes with some challenges like remembering where to go on certain plays. But the benefits of more options is obvious: Chaney can get multiple tight ends on the field in hopes of creating mismatches against defenders.
“We’ve got a lot of tight ends. We’ve got a lot of talent,” Sprinkle said. “He’s going to put us in the best positions. It’s like whatever we do in practice that we’re good at, he’s going to transfer that over to the game and let us do what we can do.”
Henry is the leader of the group after living up to expectations last season.
He finished second on the team in receptions (28) and receiving yards (409). He also tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches. And, perhaps even more impressive, Henry did it despite nagging knee injuries that limited him all season.
“It was after my first catch,” Henry said. “I got hit on the side of the knee and I woke up the next day and it was swollen and it kind of bothered me the rest of the season. Then I banged up my other knee. I was banged up off and on the rest of the season.”
Henry was able to play in every game despite the injuries. But Lunney Jr. said Arkansas only saw a glimpse of what he can accomplish when healthy.
“There were days where, like Wednesday’s practice, Jim would look at me and say, ‘He can’t play.’ The way he was running was just so tender,” Lunney Jr. said.
Henry is healthy now. He also added muscle to his 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame to prepare him for other important duties as a tight end: blocking.
He wasn’t required to do much work at the line of scrimmage last season, but is needed this season after Austin Tate’s departure and Mitch Loewen’s move to the defensive line. But the Razorbacks believe Henry has developed enough physically to handle the wear and tear that’s required at the position now.
“We didn’t ask him to do a whole lot of that last year,” Lunney Jr. said. “Mitch Loewen handled a lot of that for us. We didn’t ask a true freshman. He had so much other things on his plate playing as a true freshman we didn’t ask him to be that in-line heavy guy. And we’re asking him and pushing him in that role more. …
“We know he can catch the ball. He’s got great natural feel running routes.”
The same can be said for Sprinkle, although the Razorbacks aren’t expecting him to be a point-of-attack blocker often. The 6-foot-6, 241-pound Sprinkle did gain weight to help him, but didn’t lose his speed. It was obvious on his long catch last Saturday.
Derby, who has been sidelined with a knee injury the past week, has added a competitive edge to the group as well. He adapted to the position soon after moving in the spring, showing the willingness to block and the ability to catch the ball in traffic. Derby pulled in a one-handed catch on one of his first practices at tight end.
Lunney Jr. said Derby’s potential has pushed Henry since the spring. Derby said Henry, Sprinkle and the team’s fourth tight end — Alex Voelzke — have inspired him to improve as well because the group understands its potential.
“I think it’s very beneficial to have three even four tight ends that can all play and not have a big drop-off or anything like that,” Derby said before being injured earlier in camp. “I think we’re all able. We all know the playbook and I think it’s going to be a huge benefit for our offense to have big guys on the field the whole time.”
Lunney Jr. cautioned that his group, which remains relatively young and inexperienced, still has a lot to prove. But the potential in the room is clear as Arkansas works to find ways to take advantage of its talent at the position.
“We’ve got some talent there, no doubt,” Lunney Jr. said. “Everybody knows that. But it’s about consistency and doing it every day. … I think that’s our emphasis.”
A Closer Look At … TIGHT ENDS
Best of the Bunch: Hunter Henry — Henry is Arkansas’ leading returning receiver after catching 28 passes last season. But the Razorbacks believe he would’ve produced more if not for nagging injuries. The good news: Henry is healthy as he prepares for the 2014 season. He’s bigger. He’s stronger. And he has improved as a blocker. So the Razorbacks believe Henry is capable of an all-conference season.
Watch Out For: Jeremy Sprinkle — Arkansas fans got a glimpse of Sprinkle’s potential in last Saturday’s scrimmage. The sophomore caught 3 passes for 91 yards, including a 53-yarder on a deep ball from Allen. He also added a 27-yard touchdown catch. Sprinkle caught four passes last season, but his 6-foot-6, 241-pound frame gives Arkansas a matchup advantage it plans to exploit much more often in 2014.
Biggest Question: Will AJ Derby be the surprise of the SEC? The former quarterback had a seemingly smooth transition to his new position last spring, which led to Bret Bielema’s SEC proclamation. He continued to settle into the role this month, too, before a knee injury slowed his progress in preseason camp. Derby gives Arkansas an intriguing option. But can he hold up from a physical standpoint?
Projected Starters: Hunter Henry, So., (28 catches, 409 yards, four touchdowns in 2014); AJ Derby, Sr., (played quarterback last season)
Other Contributors: Jeremy Sprinkle, So.; Alex Voelzke, Jr.
That Figures: 7 — Number of catches by Arkansas’ tight ends outside of Hunter Henry’s 28 receptions. The Razorbacks believe that will change with much more depth and athleticism at the position. Derby and Sprinkle give Arkansas a well-rounded trio it hopes will develop into one of the SEC’s best.
Quotable: “They’re better run blockers than they’ve ever been because they’re physically stronger and understand the techniques better. They’re a year older. My goodness I think having older guys playing for you is a hell of a deal. I like that.” — Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney on the group’s growth as a blocking bunch.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau