Transitions are nothing new for Chris Gragg.
Gragg made an initial transition following his first and only year as a wide receiver at Arkansas by making the switch to tight end. He would later find that over the course of his collegiate career, he would have to encounter several other changes and challenges.
The fifth-year senior has played two different positions, had four position coaches, adapted new roles and acquired various skills to adjust to the position change. He redshirted the 2009 season after suffering a broken ankle in the preseason and spent the next year behind the most productive tight end in school history.
Most recently, he has continued to pursue the goal of a championship without three fellow pass catchers he came to campus with and the head coach they played for over the span of four years. After coming to Fayetteville with two teammates he spent his childhood with and another he came to know through competition in high school, Gragg is the only one left of the four pass catchers who came to the University of Arkansas in 2008.
Greg Childs and Jarius Wright, with whom Gragg played on the playground and on the gridiron through high school and the past four years of college, are now Minnesota Vikings. The trio from Warren joined Joe Adams at Arkansas after competing for state championships at high schools in the central part of the state. Adams was also drafted in April, in the third round by the Carolina Panthers.
"I met with them the night they were drafted and they were pretty excited," Gragg said. "They put in a lot of hard work. It's the stuff Jay, Greg and I have talked about since we have known each other since kindergarten and elementary school, and Joe since we played against him in high school.
"I couldn't be happier. Those are my brothers and they made their dreams come true. Their families are ecstatic and I know the work they put in and how good they can be."
The senior tight end got a taste of the draft experience by submitting paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board following last season to receive feedback about his draft status.
Ultimately, he decided to return to Arkansas with the spotlight no longer on the trio of receivers, but instead shining on him, Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton and Knile Davis.
All four are ranked near the top of the respective positions nationally by various draft scouting services.
"We have a lot of experience on offense," Gragg said. "We have guys who have been through it all and there's a lot of talent out there. Cobi's a big-time receiver, I'm trying to become a big-time tight end and we have the best quarterback and running back. Our offense could be as good as it has ever been.
"We have all learned from the guys who have gone on to professional careers and we're trying to fill in that void. They set the standards pretty high and we're trying to keep the standards rising."
By taking part in the advisory board process, Gragg said he received some idea of where his name could be called in the 2013 draft, the qualities teams will be looking for from the 6-foot-3, 236-pound senior during his final campaign at Arkansas, and where he can improve as a tight end.
"Since I am a mid-to-smaller sized tight end, they want to see what I can do coming in-and-out of my breaks," Gragg said. "My build is not like the normal tight end. I have long legs and long arms like a receiver. Blocking has probably been the hardest transition, but I have worked on my technique a lot.
"I just need to get bigger, stronger and faster as always and try to be a better technician at my position, knowing what I have to do and be a better student of the game so I can go out and play fast."
Despite being an undersized tight end, especially as a NFL prospect, what Gragg may lose in size and blocking ability, he makes up for as a pass catcher. Gragg had the third-most receptions on the team last season and has averaged more than 14 yards per catch throughout his career.
Gragg's predecessor, D.J. Williams, was also considered an undersized tight end, but he led the team with 54 receptions in the 2010 run to a BCS Bowl and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Gragg said he and the Mackey award-winning tight end share a lot of qualities at the position and Williams influenced him with both his on-the-field play and his leadership.
"He was a guy who always made plays in the passing game and that's something I thought I was good at," Gragg said. "He helped me and competed with me a lot in that and in blocking ability as well. He was that player everybody always went to, so I always tried to learn and take as much as I could from him.
"I think I'm consistent catching the ball like he was and I try to make plays after the catch like he did. He was a great player and was great after the catch. He made a lot of big runs and that's what I'm trying to do, because I know they come to the tight end on a lot of those iffy situations where they need a big play."
Along with Williams as a mentor, Gragg has had several different leaders at his position by having three different tight ends coaches in four years at the position. As a wide receiver his first season, Paul Petrino coached Gragg. Since the move to tight end, Chip Long, Richard Owens and now Joseph Henry, who played next to Gragg as a tight end for the Razorbacks last season, have served as position coaches.
"The transitions between all of those coaches have been smooth. It's the same offense, really. So the terminology and everything hasn't changed," Gragg said.
"It's great [being coached by Joseph Henry]. He really understands the things players go through, so he can relate to us like that. He's a great coach. Even as a player, he was a great student of the game and now he's coaching us and I have full confidence he'll have us in the right position and let us know everything we need to know."
Even with the departure of Bobby Petrino in the offseason, his younger brother, Paul Petrino, has taken control of the offense and maintained a sense of normalcy for the group. Gragg said Petrino has helped him in his progression as a tight end and allowed him to be a versatile player.
"He was with that crew of the three guys who got drafted and he played a lot for us that year at receiver," Petrino said. "It helped his mechanics of being a good route-runner and that has carried over. Now he's improving as a blocker and you'll see him line up all over the field for us."
With Adams, Childs and Wright continually improving as receivers, Gragg found himself fighting for playing time with them in 2008. The three NFL wide receivers combined for 67 more receptions than Gragg made in their inaugural season at Arkansas.
"He kept getting bigger and bigger, and you had the other three, so we wanted to find a way to get him on the field," Petrino said.
"This is what we saw him becoming."
After being focused on route running and pass catching as a wideout, Gragg said the conversion to tight end taught him a lot more about the game of football.
"You learn a lot more at tight end, because you learn protections and learn blocking schemes and those are things you don't look at much when you're playing receiver," Gragg said. "You're down there with some big guys and you have to get bigger and stronger so you can line up against them."
In his final season at Arkansas, Gragg said he hopes to be a consistent third-down threat that can keep drives alive after beginning to fill that role last season. In the final two games of the regular season, he recorded a career-high 119 yards receiving against Mississippi State and a 20-yard reception to convert a third-and-18 against LSU.
"I'm trying to establish myself as one of the go-to-guys on the team," Gragg said. "My spring went along pretty well and there are going to be high expectations for me to excel on the things I did last year and that's what I'm going to do."
Gragg's teammates are some of those who have high expectations for him in his final campaign as a Razorback.
"He's a great guy on third-down option routes and in my opinion, he's the best tight end in the country and I think a lot of people feel that way," senior receiver Cobi Hamilton said of Gragg. "His work ethic is unbelievable and he'll keep improving."
As summer begins and fall will shortly follow, Gragg said he understands his role on the team and the dedication it will take to reach the team goals of a national championship and the personal goal of joining his childhood companions in the NFL.
"The summertime is when they say championships are made," Gragg said. "In the summer, nobody's watching. That's when everybody's juices are flowing for football season and that's when you come in and put in all the dirty work so you can go out and perform in the fall.
"I need to stay consistent and go out and come here and go to work every day," Gragg said. "I know I have to be the leader. I am the oldest tight end and this is my last year, so I want to go out on a good season."
Gragg: Offense Still Potent
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