FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas Razorbacks tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. has a whole lot of talent in his room right now.
Just not a whole lot of experience.
“It’s different,” Lunney said after practice Thursday. “But it’s a lot of fun because you’re getting to coach guys that are very eager. Not that those guys weren’t before, but they see an opportunity and they know how our offense lends itself to production of the tight end. That’s why they came here.”
Arkansas has become known for its excellent tight end play. In fact, Arkansas is the only football program with two John Mackey Award winners — D.J. Williams and Hunter Henry.
Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema puts high value on the position and for the first time in a few years, Arkansas is not returning an experienced player there. The Hogs had Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle 2 years ago, and Sprinkle was back last season.
Now, it’s on to a new generation of Arkansas tight ends.
“They see that it’s their turn to step into that and have the opportunity to make plays in the passing game,” Lunney said. “But before you can earn the right to do that, you’ve got to earn your stripes in the trenches. That’s just part of the transition in our scheme. That’s kind of some of the growing pains those guys have gone through during their time here.”Cantrell a pass catcher?
One guy who hasn’t had much trouble adapting to the blocking aspect is sophomore Austin Cantrell.
“Austin is probably as good of a blocking tight end as I’ve had here — and really before I came here,” Bielema said this spring. “Austin Cantrell is a very special player.”
So there is little doubt Cantrell will play in 2017. The question, though, is whether he will be much of a factor in the passing game.
“He’s gonna naturally be involved in the passing game because he’s gonna be out there a lot,” Lunney said. “I think Austin has really good hands. I think he’s really improved as a route runner. People forget … I think you’re right. He gets kinda die-cast into being this road [grader] — and he is. He’s 270 or whatever. Now he can run. He was the anchor of his 4-by-1 in high school for a reason and it wasn’t just for giggles. He can run.
“But figuring out how to be the route runner, to tie up those loose ends, that’s something that he’s really progressed nicely in and I think we have a lot of confidence in him in the pass route structures and more importantly, I think Austin Allen has confidence that if he throws the ball, he’s gonna catch the ball for us.”
So Cantrell will be involved. But Arkansas prefers to play with multiple tight ends, so who else will play? There is fullback/tight end Hayden Johnson, who started 7 games last season as a true freshman.
Former top recruits Cheyenne O’Grady and Will Gragg have made strides this spring. Jack Kraus is another option.
Then there’s Jeremy Patton.Patton still on track
As for Patton, Lunney said he is still on track to join the team this summer.
Patton — the top-rated junior-college tight end, per the 247Sports composite — was already supposed to be with the team, but that was pushed back to the summer.
Asked how Patton will fit into the already crowded tight end room, Lunney said, “It’s hard to say. It’s always hard to say. I know this: One thing we’re confident in doing our research and getting to know Jeremy is he loves football and he’s a football rat.”
Still, Patton will have to get in shape and play catch-up considering the other guys have had all spring to learn the offense and get better.
“Certainly these guys have a leg up with the work they’ve gotten this spring,” Lunney said. “We signed him for a reason and that’s because we think he’s really talented and we think he can help us now. Hopefully he can.”
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