FAYETTEVILLE -- The previous Pro-style offense at the University of Arkansas was so friendly to tight ends that it netted the nation's No. 1 recruiting class at the position in 2015 and featured many multiple tight end packages.
While the new Chad Morris offensive system is sure to highlight wide receivers, the tight ends are far from an afterthought.
The top grouping of players at the position -- Jeremy Patton, Austin Cantrell, Cheyenne O'Grady and Grayson Gunter -- have been all over a highlight reel of top plays from last spring and early in camp. The tight ends are lining up or motioning to places all over the field.
"I came to Arkansas obviously as a tight end wanting to play in that Pro-style offense," said Patton, a 6-5, 253-pound senior. "I wanted to wrap my mind around it and all the concepts that are going to be at the next level.
"But this is very similar in a way. ... We're still doing tight-end things, tight-end blocking. I think this offense allows me to catch a lot more balls. I think we're going to be able to get the ball out a lot quicker, and I also think our run game is going to be a little more explosive."
O'Grady, a 6-4, 251-pound junior, caught two touchdown passes in the Red-White spring game.
"I feel like we're getting used more," he said. "We have a lot of plays built for us to get the ball, and I'm having the most fun I've had since I've been here."
Morris' lack of tight end usage at SMU -- players at the position caught five passes in 2017 -- has been a topic in recruiting circles, but Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. had a strong take on the issue.
"People ask me about that all the time," Lunney said. "Really, all you have to do is look back at when he was at Clemson and he had a guy [Dwayne Allen] who won the Mackey Award. To me, that's all you need to know.
"You use what you've got. Obviously his situation at SMU, when he inherited the team [in 2015], it was coming from a run-and-shoot [system] for years. And tight ends are hard to find now. ... Sometimes the mid-majors have a harder time finding them than we do.
"It was very obvious that they didn't have the personnel that they quite wanted to so they could use the offense like they had at Clemson and like I think you're going to see us do now."
Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said they were "very excited" to inherit the Hogs' personnel at tight end, also called the "3" back, Lunney said.
Cantrell, a 6-3, 263-pound junior, emerged the quickest among the highly regarded class of 2015 (also featuring O'Grady and Will Gragg, who has since transferred to Pitt) after the trio redshirted that season. The best blocker in the group, Cantrell is also a sharp route runner with good hands.
Lunney said Cantrell is often the last player in his group reporters ask about.
"They like to talk about the guys who are the pass catchers and the open-field targets," he said, "but you would take 20 Cantrells in your program. Tough, smart, takes care of business, super competitive, really good run blocker, good hands.
"Austin Cantrell very, very much has a huge role in what we're trying to do. ... Without question, a guy you want on your team and in your corner. He just kind of goes about his business and flies under the radar."
Patton signed last year as the nation's No. 1-rated junior college tight end, but reported late and wound up with 11 catches for 189 yards and no touchdowns.
"The way I was rushed into it, it kind of took me a little bit more to get the ball rolling as far as knowing the concepts and the plays," Patton said.
A full spring and summer in the Morris schemes has Patton revved up for the possibilities.
"The 3-back in this offense is everywhere, and I think that's really one of the cool things about this offense and really a recruiting tool that you can use to recruit other tight ends," he said.
Hayden Johnson, a fullback and H-back in the previous offense, is now working with the tight ends.
O'Grady came to college with hype but has needed to mature.
"Every day the coaches put stress on me to just be the same person every day," O'Grady said.
O'Grady had 21 catches for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, but he is expected to increase those numbers. Some have speculated he could emerge as one of the best tight ends in the country.
"I think to a large degree he controls if that's said or not," Lunney said. "The opportunity is going to be there. How you seize those and how you take advantage of those leads to whether there's more or less. From a talent standpoint, and ability and knowledge, it's all there. ... He absolutely needs to take the next jump in production and maturity and those types of things."
Tight ends glance
RETURNING STARTERS Austin Cantrell (10 starts in 2017), Jeremy Patton (6)
LOSSES Will Gragg (transferred)
WHO’S BACK Cheyenne O’Grady (1 start in 2017), Grayson Gunter (redshirted last season), Hayden Johnson
WHO’S NEW None
WALK-ONS Trey Purifoy, Blake Kern
ANALYSIS The tight ends have perhaps the most veteran group on the team with mostly upperclassmen. Gunter, who redshirted last year to increase strength after a second labrum surgery, and Kern are the lone sophomores. The Razorbacks are not likely to run jumbo packages with two or three tight ends on the field at once in run formations, but intend to get plenty of mileage from the position, as evidenced in spring scrimmages. The players at the tight end spots will be versatile with motions, lead blocking, being attached to the line and split out.
Morris pointed out Gunter during a preseason roster analysis as a player who could line up at many spots, including the slot position, numbered 5 in the system.
"This is a guy you'll see move around," Morris said. "He's very athletic. He can play multiple positions. ... He's got great speed, exceptional hands. I really like where we're at with that tight end position."
The praise got back to Gunter.
"Every player likes to have their coach talk good about him," said Gunter, who redshirted last season while doing rehab after labrum surgery. "As far as playing that 5 spot, it's something I feel really comfortable with. It's something I did a lot in high school, so it comes naturally from the Spread offense.
"We're real excited about the offense from the tight end standpoint of how we can get out and move around and make plays. That's what people came here to do is make plays."
Sports on 08/10/2018
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