Arkansas sophomore Hunter Henry (6-6, 255) made his name as a pass-catching tight end as a freshman, but went into the off-season hoping to turn himself into an all-around one.
The former Pulaski Academy standout and his coach believe that's been mission accomplished.
“I think I have had a good camp,” Henry said Tuesday after the Razorbacks' practiced. “One of my big goals was to become a point-of-attack blocker and to be real physical in there. I am going to go make plays in the passing game, but I had to really be able that Y (inside tight end) that set the tone in the run game. So that was big goal for me going into camp and I think I have really done well with it.”
Henry – who played at about 240 last season - caught 28 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns last season even while battling some injuries as Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and tight ends coach Barry Lunney, Jr., brought him along slowly.
“One of our big challenges to Hunter coming into fall camp was we wanted him to embrace the role of an in-line, physical guy,” Lunney said. “I think if you ask Coach Bielema, you ask Jim and you ask myself and you ask Hunter, I think everybody would agree that he’s embraced that and responded to the challenge.
“I’m not sitting here saying the guy didn’t do well last year,” Lunney added. “I think for a true freshman being thrown in there, at times, he did well. But I think the physical maturity along with, I think there’s some things maybe from a technique standpoint that he’s improved on that’s helped him. He sets the tone in our group. So I think him being more physical has helped our whole group become more physical.”
Henry is part of four guys that are likely to see tight end reps – along with senior A.J. Derby (6-5, 255), sophomore Jeremy Sprinkle (6-6, 241) and junior Alex Voelzke (6-6, 260) - in the opener at Auburn August 30 with as many as three being on the field in some sets.
Sprinkle had four catches for 68 yards last season, Voelzke has two in his career for 28 yards and one touchdown and Derby is new to the position after arriving on campus in 2013 as a quarterback.
“It is awesome,” Henry said. “It is tremendous to see. Our offense is going to use a lot of tight ends on the field and that is something to see as it has shown. We are going to run the ball and use a lot of tight ends. So it is huge for us as a group because any play a lot of us could be on the field it is big for our group.”
Lunney described the strengths of his top three – who are backed up by Voelzke and Bentonville freshman Jack Kraus, who Arkansas would like to redshirt.
“We think all three (Henry, Derby and Sprinkle) can stretch the field vertically,” Lunney said. “I mean probably none of them run quite as well as Jeremy does when he is in full stride. I think Hunter is probably our most consistent guy down there.
“Jeremy is a guy that can separate more down field because of his stride length. AJ is the quickest to get there. So they all three have some kind of unique qualities in how they run their routes.”
Henry is expecting a stiff challenge from an Auburn defense that he describes as big, fast and strong.
“They are a great defense, they have a great defensive coordinator, they have a great defensive line and a great secondary also,” Henry said. “They have a great corps of linebackers. Just from top to bottom they are great. We are going to have to bring our A game the whole game. They are big so we are going to have to play with leverage and things like that. So it is going to be a great match-up for us.”
Henry is happy that Auburn – the defending SEC champion after a worst-to-first season — is first on the schedule.
The Tigers were 3-9 overall and 0-8 in league action in 2012 – the same records the Razorbacks had in 2013.
“I think we are really motivated on both sides of the ball – offensively and defensively,” Henry said. “We are ready to go and I think we are motivated going into Auburn and just ready to hit the ground running.”
Lunney said he feels good about the group – especially since it is going to be an 11-on-11 deal.
“I’d feel a lot worse if they were the only ones going out there,” Lunney said. “It wouldn’t be real good if there were just three or four of us out there. The good thing is there’s going to be 11 of us each time. So it’s going to take a really good effort by our line. It’s going to take a really good effort by our tight ends and our receivers and our backs. It’s going to take a complete team effort. I think our guys are excited about the challenge.”
Lunney, who already has two tight end commitments in the 2015 class in Fayetteville's C.J. O'Grady and Roland, Okla., standout Austin Cantrell and would love to add Dumas' Will Gragg, knows this offense helps tight ends flourish.
“One, it’s what we believe in,” Lunney said. “It's a philosophy of the tight ends creating mismatches for second level defenders and third level defenders. And so that’s a philosophy. To boot, when you’re on the field you can be heavy and physical in the run game with them. I think it’s first with the philosophy and then obviously the structure and the way Jim has built our offense, it makes it really easy to plug a guy in to say, well even though you’re a wide receiver you’re playing the tight end here in his role.
“Our kids understand it,” Lunney added. “Last year at this time I don’t know if our kids understood it as well. But our feeling and understanding of the terminology and structure of the offense has allowed the parts to move a little bit more freely.”
Henry has not been a focal point in Arkansas' scrimmages as the coaches know what he can do and wanted to see the development of others.
“It has been tremendous to see receivers and other tight ends and other people – just to have threats across the field is going to be tremendous for us and our offense to have more threats and not just one here, one there,” Henry said. “Just have threats all of the field is going to be dangerous for defenses.”
AJ Derby hauls in a pass in spring practice after making the switch from quarterback.
Jeremy Sprinkle takes off after catching a pass against Mississippi State last season.
Alex Voelzke makes a play against South Carolina.
Henry Happy Now To Bang Around In Trenches
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