HawgBeat's Preseason Burning Questions: Depth at tight end
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The status of the 2020 college football season remains perilous as we inch closer to - at least what is scheduled to be - Week 1.
As of this moment, Arkansas is still set to open the Sam Pittman era against Nevada on Sept. 5 in Fayetteville. That could change if the SEC follows the Big Ten’s lead and shifts to a conference-only schedule.
However, for the time being, HawgBeat is treating it as everything is moving forward as planned. That includes the start of NFL-style OTAs - which are essentially walk-through practices - for the Razorbacks on Friday.
Leading up to that date, we are revealing our 10 “burning questions” surrounding Arkansas as it prepares for what everyone hopes to be a fall football season. Next up…
What will Arkansas' depth look like at tight end?
Arkansas has been on a run of pretty good tight ends for more than a decade.
D.J. Williams put up solid numbers from 2008-10, winning the Mackey Award his senior year. Chris Gragg got hurt his senior year, but still finished his career with 1,003 career receiving yards and was drafted in the seventh round.
After Gragg’s departure, Hunter Henry signed with the Razorbacks and became arguably the best tight end in UA history, winning the Mackey Award as a junior in 2015 and becoming a high second-round pick in the NFL Draft. During Henry’s tenure, A.J. Derby converted to tight end and did enough in one year to get drafted in the sixth round.
Jeremy Sprinkle’s career overlapped with both of those tight ends and he ended up breaking the school record for career touchdown receptions before being taken in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. His record stood until Cheyenne O’Grady broke it last season. Had it not been for off-the-field issues, he likely would have become the sixth Arkansas tight end drafted in 10 years.
It seems like Hudson Henry is a prime candidate to keep the Razorbacks’ tight end tradition alive, but that’s just going off the fact he was a four-star recruit and the younger brother of Hunter Henry. The previous staff played him sparingly as a true freshman, so we didn’t really get a feel for what to expect from him moving forward.
That said, he is the clear No. 1 option at the position. Arkansas doesn’t have very much depth behind him, which is the biggest reason behind this being one of the burning questions of the preseason.
The only other returning scholarship tight end is Blake Kern, who was one of a handful of walk-ons placed on scholarship before last season to help the Razorbacks reach the 85-man limit. He has played only 76 career offensive snaps and was a run-blocker on 68 of them. Of the other eight snaps, he ran a route just four times, so Kern doesn’t appear to be a threat in the passing game, even though he could prove valuable as a blocker.
Depth was such an issue that Arkansas flipped a two-star recruit, Collin Sutherland, who was previously committed to UNLV the day before the February signing date and then moved Blayne Toll from defensive end to tight end once he arrived on campus.
The Razorbacks will also have a pair of walk-ons in the tight end room, with Nathan Bax transferring in from Illinois State and Jonas Higson signing as a preferred walk-on in this class, but neither have appeared in a college game.
Looking back at his recent stops, new Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles has typically had one tight end with the bulk of the receptions, but has been known to spread some snaps around to other tight ends in a blocking role.
Briles did have two tight ends with 15-plus catches and 200-plus yards at Florida State last season, but at least on paper, it seems like he’ll revert back to having just one - likely Henry - in 2020. It just remains to be seen which of the remaining guys might emerge and get valuable playing time.
HawgBeat's Preseason Burning Questions
7. What will Arkansas’ depth look like at tight end?