FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas Razorbacks tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. has spent a lot of time since late March answering many of the same questions during his sessions with reporters.
How quickly has Jeremy Patton adapted? Is Austin Cantrell more than just a blocking tight end? Are Cheyenne O’Grady and Will Gragg ready to finally live up to the hype? What about Jack Kraus and Grayson Gunter?
So on Tuesday, Lunney tried out a creative answer to a question about Patton, the No. 1-rated 2017 JUCO tight end whose arrival on campus was delayed by several months because of academic issues.
“He’s got his foot on the gas pedal,” Lunney said. “He’s behind in the race. He may be a lap behind, but he’s got his foot on the gas pedal and he’s doing his best to try to catch up. I believe he’s got the car to do it.”
Lunney paused before grinning and giving it up to himself for the metaphorical answer.
“I just threw a race car analogy out there and I’ve never watched a race in my life,” he added. “I’ve never watched one. The closest I’ve gotten to watching that would be watching Ricky Bobby. Other than that, I don’t know much about it.
“Actually, to be honest with you, I think that was a pretty good analogy even though I’m not a race-car guy. That one pieced together pretty nicely.”
Arkansas has a proud tradition at the tight end position, and the Hogs have been strong there the last couple of years. Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle made a lethal 1-2 combo in 2015. Last season, Sprinkle was often a dangerous weapon.
This season, though, Arkansas is heavy on talent and light on experience. O’Grady and Gragg were highly touted prospects in high school who are looking to break through as sophomores. Gunter played some as a true freshman last season — sometimes over O’Grady and Gragg — but he was limited through the spring with an injury.
Cantrell was the Hogs’ No. 2 tight end behind Sprinkle last season, but he has been seen more as a blocker rather than a pass catcher — something Lunney has said is not necessarily accurate.
Kraus — a junior from nearby Bentonville, Ark. — has appeared in 22 career games, mostly on special teams.
Right now, the only tight end who seems like a lock to play — and play a lot — is Cantrell. Continuing his vehicle analogy, Lunney said Cantrell is like a tank.
“He doesn’t go around the field; he goes through the midfield and cuts across. He chooses the path he wants to go.”
Behind him, it could be anybody.
Asked how many tight ends can realistically play significant snaps, Lunney said, “Just in the four years I’ve been here, we’ve had games where we played four tight ends and played four of them for quality snaps. I think that’s very realistic, if not adding another guy or two in that.
“Hey listen, if you can provide something to help us win a game and we’re pretty confident in that, I think we’re gonna find a way to help you try to apply those when it comes to game time. It’s hard to put a finger on the exact number.”
Patton signed with Arkansas last December, a fact that was cause for celebration among Razorbacks fans. He was supposed to arrive in Fayetteville a month later and go through spring ball, but was held up until the second summer term that began in July.
Now he has a lot of catching up to do.
“He missed out on a whole semester and then the first summer term, so there’s a collective five months of work that he missed out on that he could have been here, or could have had the chance to be lifting, learning, acclimating, those types of things,” Lunney said. “So yeah, I think it goes without question that it didn’t help him, certainly.”
But, he added, “He’s doing a good job. He’s very tuned in, very hungry and very capable. Those are all good qualities.”