FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — There’s no doubt Arkansas tight end Austin Cantrell can be a dominating blocker.
Last spring, coach Bret Bielema said the third-year sophomore was “as good as any” tight end he’d ever coached in that department. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos has referred to him as “maybe the best blocking tight end in the country.”
As good as Cantrell is at clearing out opponents to open running lanes, it’s likely more will be needed from him this season. Is he capable of being the all-around blocking and receiving threat the Razorbacks desire at the position?
The assumption throughout the spring and summer has been “no.” Still viewed as a good player, perception has pigeonholed Cantrell as a blocking specialist. That’s left many wondering who will be the go-to target at the position.
Maybe transfer Jeremy Patton, the No. 1 junior college tight end in the 2017 class, could become that player. Maybe it will be Cheyenne O’Grady or Will Gragg, who arrived as higher-rated prospects in the same class as Cantrell.
Actually, the best option two weeks into fall camp appears to be Cantrell. After playing at around 270 pounds last season, he’s shed 15 pounds in an effort to become more nimble. It showed in Arkansas’ first scrimmage of the season last Saturday when he had 3 receptions, two of which went for more than 10 yards.
“We’ve been real pleased with where he’s at in the passing game,” tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said Thursday. “He feels better. He looks better running. His conditioning level has been something we’ve harped on. He really took that to heart and it’s shown up.
“Real pleased with where he’s at right now. We feel like he’s got really good ball skills. He catches the ball naturally. He’s gaining more and more confidence in that area.”
There’s plenty of opportunity for Cantrell. None of the other tight ends, including Grayson Gunter and Jack Kraus with those mentioned above, have done anything to warrant significant playing time.
Last season, Cantrell caught 13 passes for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was used primarily as a blocker, with starter Jeremy Sprinkle viewed as the go-to receiver at tight end. If Cantrell can prove he’s capable of playing at a level similar to Sprinkle, he’ll see a significant statistical uptick.
Arkansas’ primary tight end has finished no worse than third on the team in receptions in each of Bielema’s four seasons. Each season that player (Hunter Henry for three years and then Sprinkle) has caught no fewer than 28 passes.
“Austin, right now, is the one guy that is the one constant that we have,” Lunney said. “We feel like he’s kind of proven himself worthy of being the starting tight end right now. The other parts of that, whether we’re in two tights or even three tights at times, it’s a little bit of a revolving door.”