This is the fourth story in a 10-part series previewing the 2014 Razorbacks. Up next: Tight ends
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas place kicker John Henson didn’t get many opportunities to step on the field during his first four seasons as a Razorback.
The fifth-year senior has former Razorback Zach Hocker to blame for it.
The record-setting kicker was consistent, impressive and reliable throughout his collegiate career, leaving as the program’s all-time leading scorer. He also left no opportunities for others to overtake him on the depth chart. But Henson said all the time watching Hocker’s success from the sideline wasn’t wasted.
“I don’t really see it as waiting around,” Henson said. “I just see it as a great opportunity to come and learn on-the-field things and off-the-field things. I’ve had three head coaches and four specialist coaches.
“I got a lot of good perspectives on all sorts of lessons.”
Henson is finally ready to apply them on the field, though, as he competes with freshman Cole Hedlund for the starting position in preseason camp. The Razorbacks are in search of someone they can count on after Hocker was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins.
So far, Henson looks like he’s the favorite to win the position.
He has made every field goal attempt in practices open to the media this preseason and has shown range solid range. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said before last Saturday’s scrimmage Henson had a “bit of an edge” in the competition against Hedlund because he has been “absolutely fantastic” on field goals.
But Arkansas holder Matt Emrich — who is preparing for his second year at the position — said both have made the competition intriguing this month.
“It’s completely different this year because last year it was obviously Zach and it was him the whole way,” Emrich said. “They’re battling right now. John’s doing a great job and Cole’s doing a good job too, for a freshman. We’ll see where it ends up.”
It’s no problem for Henson, who know he was facing competition for the kicking job when the Razorbacks signed Hedlund. The Argyle (Texas) High star won the Chris Sailer Award, which is presented to the national place kicker of the year last season. He also was named a Parade All-American and first-team All-USA by USA Today.
Hedlund, who got an unusual hair cut from Emrich before preseason camp began, also knew the job wouldn’t be given to him. Henson would make him earn it.
“It’s college level D-I. You definitely have to earn your spot,” Hedlund said last week. “I knew coming in I wasn’t just going to be handed the job. It’s great having competition. John’s done a really good job so far, so I guess we’ll see what happens.”
Bielema said he’s keeping all options on the table as Arkansas looks to replace Hocker. One kicker may handle kickoffs and the other field goals. He also said there could be one kicker for short attempts, another for longer ones.
“I can go to that,” Bielema said. “I really don’t care. Just try to make them.”
There’s one good indicator Bielema’s faith in Henson is growing, though. He put the kicker on scholarship earlier this month. Henson said he wasn’t expecting the honor, but appreciated joining a list of recent recipients that include tight end AJ Derby and offensive lineman Adam Deacon.
Henson wants to prove worthy, too. The good news: he does have some experience, filling in for Hocker when the kicker struggled in the 2012 season finale against LSU.
Former Arkansas coach John L. Smith gave Henson on a shot to finish the game and he made the most of it, going 2-for-2 on field goals of 25 and 17 yards. He also added an extra point in Arkansas’ 20-13 loss to the Tigers.
“I went in there cold, but it was a great experience for me,” Henson said.
Henson — who appeared in three games and made an extra point in the opener against Louisiana last season — is hoping for similar success as well in 2014.
He’ll have to officially edge Hedlund in the race for the position, but plans to be Arkansas’ next reliable kicker after watching Hocker’s success the past four years.
Bielema said Henson will find out if the position is finally his soon.
“I would hope that it kind of pans out a little bit in the next week,” Bielema said. “But I love the competition because I really do think it bring out the best in people.”
A Closer Look At … SPECIAL TEAMS
Best of the Bunch: P Sam Irwin-Hill — The ambidextrous punter gave Arkansas plenty of options last year. He could punt with either foot. He did rugby style punts. He did regular punts. He also threw passes and ran on trick plays. But the most valuable thing about Irwin-Hill is his consistency on kicks. He enters the season as one of the SEC’s top punters after averaging 44.3 yards an attempt last season.
Watch Out For: KR/PR Jojo Robinson — Starting spots for return men haven’t been finalized, but it wouldn’t be a shock if the exciting freshman finds a role. Robinson showed some of his potential in catching a touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage, making an impressive move along the way. It was reminiscent of former Razorback Joe Adams, who ended up being one of the school’s best punt returners.
Biggest Question: Will Korliss Marshall return kicks? Or will the Razorbacks look for other options? There’s no question Marshall could be Arkansas’ most explosive return man after averaging 22.2 yards last season, including an 87-yarder against Auburn. But the sophomore is preparing for an expanded role in Arkansas’ ground game in 2014. So it’s not clear if kick return duties will remain part of his routine.
Projected Starters: PK – John Henson, Sr., (2-for-2 on field goals in his career); P – Sam Irwin-Hill, Sr., (44.3 yards an attempt in 2013); H – Matt Emrich, So., (Entering second season as holder); LS – Alan D’Appollonio (Entering fourth season as long snapper); KR – Korliss Marshall, Keon Hatcher; PR – D.J. Dean
That Figures: 9 — Number of punts returned by Arkansas last season. The Razorbacks asked former wide receiver Javontee Herndon to do little more than signal for a fair catch in 2013 without a big-play threat on the roster. But Arkansas is hoping that changes as they prepare for their returners for 2014.
Quotable: “To me, it’s a great talking piece. But I just want him where they fair catch. If it’s right-footed or left-footed or whatever it is just make sure to hang it up there in the right spot where they can’t return it.” — Special teams coordinator Rory Segrest on Irwin-Hill’s ability to punt with either foot.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau