FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Tight end is undoubtedly one of the most important positions in Arkansas’ offense, and that will certainly be no different in 2016 — especially with the bevy of talent the Razorbacks return in that group.
Arkansas is the only program with two winners of the John Mackey Award — given annually to college football’s top tight end — and even though one of those Mackey winners left Fayetteville six months ago and then became a second-round NFL draft pick, there is plenty of reason to believe the position will remain a team strength this fall.
In the latest chapter of SEC Country’s nine-part series previewing Arkansas’ 2016 position groups, here is a look at Razorback tight ends.
Names you need to know
Jeremy Sprinkle (senior), Jack Kraus (redshirt sophomore), Jamario Bell (redshirt freshman), Austin Cantrell (redshirt freshman), Will Gragg (redshirt freshman), C.J. O’Grady (redshirt freshman), Grayson Gunter (freshman).
Hunter Henry — a consensus All-American and the 2015 Mackey Award winner — is now preparing for his rookie season with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. He caught 51 passes for 739 yards and three touchdowns last season, leaving a big production gap the Razorbacks need to fill.
Fortunately for Arkansas, the guy who is now atop the depth chart at tight end is pretty special himself. Despite playing second fiddle to Henry last season, Jeremy Sprinkle led all SEC tight ends with six touchdown receptions in 2015, and all of those scores came in Arkansas’ final seven games.
Sprinkle proved he could be a short-yardage and a downfield threat last year, hauling in seven receptions that gained at least 20 yards. His 23-yard scoring grab against Auburn last October was his first career touchdown.
But as those final seven games proved, having more than one difference maker at tight end can really make Arkansas’ pro-style offense lethal.
Henry and Sprinkle combined to catch 47 passes for 710 yards and eight touchdowns over that stretch, during which the Razorbacks unsurprisingly went 6-1.
So who might step up and be the guy opposite Sprinkle in Arkansas’ frequently used two-tight sets? There are several options.
It could be Jack Kraus — a sophomore who appeared in 11 games but recorded no catches last season, was injured during bowl prep and missed the entire spring — or any one of the Razorbacks’ four redshirt freshmen.
Will Gragg and C.J. O’Grady were both 4-star signees in Arkansas’ 2015 recruiting class, and 3-star Austin Cantrell also signed as a tight end.
Jamario Bell was a 4-star 2015 defensive end signee from Junction City, Ark., who redshirted last season and was converted to tight end during spring practices a few months ago.
In the Razorbacks’ April 23 spring game, O’Grady caught two passes for 26 yards; Gragg made one catch for three yards; and Bell hauled in a 28-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown reception from Ricky Town.
Arkansas also added true freshman Grayson Gunter — a 3-star prospect from Madison, Miss. — to the roster this summer, although it seems unlikely that he would leapfrog Kraus and all four redshirt freshmen to become the No. 2 tight end this year.
And, of course, in 2017 — after Sprinkle’s eligibility has expired — Arkansas expects to add highly-touted recruit Jeremy Patton to the mix.
Patton, who committed to the Hogs just last week despite owning an impressive offer list that includes Alabama and Auburn, is one of the nation’s highest-rated 2017 junior-college prospects. He could instantly be Arkansas’ No. 1 tight end when he steps on campus.
For this upcoming season, though, the Razorbacks have one potential superstar in Sprinkle and a lot of very talented, but very inexperienced, guys behind him.
Considering the security blanket that tight ends can be for quarterbacks — especially first-year starters like Austin Allen — it could end up being very important that the Hogs find another one to compliment Sprinkle.
As Hogs tight end coach Barry Lunney Jr. told reporters during the spring, “We’ve got to find another guy or two that’s SEC ready.”