It may seem like Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle has been around here forever and it is true that he is about to enter his third year on campus.
But Sprinkle (6-6, 237) – who did not practice as a freshman due to injury – really just started getting his feet wet last season with a minor role as a redshirt freshman.
"It was kind of tough that first year, redshirting, not practicing and just trying to get healthy," Sprinkle said Tuesday. "But as time went on, it gave me time to pick up weight, mature and gain strength."
Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney expounded on what this season's role will be for Sprinkle, who caught 4 passes for 68 yards last season while playing in all 12 games.
His lone big play was a 44-yard catch-and-run against Mississippi State.
"One of the things that showed up in his review at the end of the fall, was that his role was restricted," Lunney said. "He had some deficiencies and we have tried hard to address them. I think we have. He's made definite progress. He's super willing and eager and he's dialed into growing and learning the position. To use a bad pun, it's not just a sprinkle with him anymore. He's got a meaningful role now."
That showed during Saturday's scrimmage as Sprinkle - a former White Hall standout who chose Arkansas over Mississippi State, Louisville and others - caught 3 passes for 73 yards.
"The coaches just called plays and put me in position to make plays," Sprinkle said. "They threw the ball, I caught it and got some good blocks down the field and I just tried to make good plays for the team."
He caught head coach Bret Bielema's attention during the scrimmage on Saturday and knows the coach would love to add Sprinkle to the play-making ability of Hunter Henry, who had 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns last season.
"I thought Sprinkle really did a nice job," Bielema said. "He had the one jump off-sides which jumps into my mind but again Jeremy, although he is not as big as I am sure you guys noticed. He is still not real thick but he is up probably 30 pounds since I have been here.
"He finished with a 3.3 GPA in the fall semester and he has got his life in order in so many different ways," Bielema added. "I am excited for his uptake. We all know Hunter can play football. Hunter is good but the best combinations I have had in the results of tight end play is when I have two, maybe three tight ends that I can go to and defenses aren't allowed just to zone in one guy."
Henry believes that is going to be the case this season.
"Jeremy is really, really coming on," Henry said. "He is going to be able to stretch the field this season and it is really going to be big for us. I think it really is going to cause defenses some major match-up problems."
Sprinkle, who came to Arkansas at around 215 and is now up to 237, is trying to get to 245 by the start of the 2014 season.
"I have got to keep working on just run blocking, blocking techniques and everything," Sprinkle said. "I've got speed and good hands, but I need to become a complete tight end on this level."
Arkansas starting quarterback Brandon Allen sees a more confident sprinkle.
"You can just see how much more comfortable he feels out there, how much more confident he is in his route running, catching the ball, knowing where to be on plays," Allen said. "He has come on as much from last season as any player we have on this team."
Sprinkle said he put in the work during the off-season to gain that confidence.
"It was just off-season work, getting faster, getting better and working with my hands to get stronger hands, make sure I catch the ball and look it in," Sprinkle said. "Plus I have gained about 15 pounds since last season and I think that is going to get me more time on the field."
Sprinkle knows Bielema's offense is a godsend for a tight end.
"Coach B's offense uses a lot of tight ends – a lot of two and even three tight end sets," Sprinkle said. "We always have plenty of reps and plenty of opportunities."
Arkansas has moved former quarterback A.J. Derby to tight end to try and help shore up a position that has seen some injuries limit its depth this spring.
"We have some guys not out there, but it is a deal where those of us that are out there are just taking advantage to try and impress the coaches," Sprinkle said. "Time is earned here with these coaches and not just given. So that is what we are all trying to do – earned it now for later."
Jeremy Sprinkle heads off on his 44-yard catch and run last season against Mississippi State.
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