Henry Prepared for Big Season

Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry wants to win battles against elite SEC defensive ends.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 FBS prospects have come out of Pulaski Academy over the last 12 years.

Bruins Coach Kevin Kelley lost count at some point along the way, but there is no doubt the Little Rock private school has produced a steady stream of talent during his tenure. Only a handful of those players, Kelley points out, were Power 5 Conference-ready. Even fewer were what the coach would describe as a “can’t-miss” prospect.

Too many variables go into success at the college level for a coach as seasoned as Kelley to throw that label around lightly. But it was a designation he had no trouble attaching to former high school All-American and current Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry.

“In reality, you never know what a kid is going to do in college, how it is going to pan out,” Kelley said. “There are so many factors in college, even off the field. Hunter was one of few I have pegged as a can’t-miss. Those players are few and far between. Think about all the things that go into that. Work ethic. Attitude. A good spiritual relationship and support system to lean on when times are hard. Talent. You put it all together and you’ve got Hunter Henry.”

Henry has proven his coach right so far.

Entering his junior season the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder has emerged as one of the Southeastern Conference’s top tight ends. Henry has 65 catches for 922 yards and 6 touchdowns through his first two seasons.

Henry has grown into a go-to player for quarterback Brandon Allen. He’s been especially important on third downs where he caught 16 passes that resulted in a first down during the 2014 season. ESPN notes that Henry notched a first down or touchdown on 78.5 percent of his catches, a stat led SEC tight ends the past two seasons.

“Those third down numbers say a lot about when we relied on him and how much we relied on him,” tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said. “We count on him.”

It was clear from the beginning of his career that Henry would be that kind of weapon for the Razorbacks. He caught five passes for 75 yards in his debut and four games later notched his first 100-yard receiving game.

Lunney notes that Henry struggled with lower leg injuries after the 2012 season opener and was never really 100 percent even as he caught 28 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns.

Last year he had 513 yards and two touchdowns on 37 catches. Henry was named second-team All-Southeastern Conference for his efforts.

Don’t be surprised if those numbers and accolades improve this year. Henry is motivated to get better by a support system that includes his father, Mark, a letterman from 1988-91 and a team captain as a senior.

“I can be better,” Henry said. “I have people who care about me and love me enough to push me and keep me humble. If I don’t stay hungry, I’m not going to grow.”

Growth will come from Henry’s desire to be better and will likely be a byproudct of new offensive coordiantor Dan Enos.

Enos has added some dimension to the offense. He’s got a history of using the tight end as part of a play-action passing attack which figures to work in Henry’s favor.

Plus, the emergence of Jeremy Sprinkle at the off tight end spot and the continued development of wide receiver Keon Hatcher should serve as complementary pieces to a running game that featured two 1,000-yard rushers. Those weapons should help keep defense from regularly keying on and neutralizing Henry.

“I think the change in scheme was good for him,” Lunney said. “For one, it stimulated his mind. It’s easy to get in a rut, but he looked really sharp in the spring. We’re looking forward to him having a big year.”

Coaches are asking Henry to improve aspects of his route running and he mentioned needing to attack the ball in the air with this hands, rather than waiting to corral it with his body as an area he wants to get better.

Plus, Henry needs to continue working on playing physical. Henry is a difficult matchup for most tight ends and defensive backs, but the Razorbacks need him to be effective against elite defensive ends when they’re matched up against him.

It’s a difficult task, but one his coaches are confident Henry can handle more consistently this year. As Lunney explains, the Razorbacks need Henry not just to survive against those elite ends as he’s done before, but win those battles more often than not.

Arkansas is counting on Henry for more big plays this season. They also are relying on his leadership among a promising tight end crew.

Sprinkle had a big spring and looks poised to build on a junior season that saw him catch seven passes for 84 yards and a touchdown. Walk-on Alex Voelzke played in just one game at tight end last year, but Lunney said the senior turned in his best spring as a Razorback.

Early enrolee Will Gragg showed flashes in the spring and Arkansas will welcome highly touted freshmen C.J. O’Grady of Fayetteville and Austin Cantrell of Roland (Okla.) this fall.

Henry likes what he sees from the tight end room.

“I think there’s huge potential with the guys in my room,” Henry said. “What Sprinkle showed this spring, it will be awesome to have a guy across the formation to take some pressure off me. Then some of those other guys on offense, the way they’re stepping up we need to have that.”

While Henry balks at the idea of being a can’t-miss prospect — “Coach Kelley is funny. I don’t know about all that,” Henry said when told of Kelley’s assessment — he has no trouble admitting a somewhat lofty individual goal. Henry is driven by the idea of being recognized as the top tight end in college football.

Fellow Little Rock product D.J. Williams was named as the Mackey Award winner, an honor that goes to the country’s best tight end, in 2010. Williams was named all-SEC, catching 54 passes for 627 yards and four touchdowns during the 2010 season as Arkansas went to the Sugar Bowl.

Henry doesn’t hide his desire to match the accomplishment. He said the desire to be the best at his position fuels his offseason workouts and commitment to practice. Even during a nearly two-week summer break spent mostly with family in Little Rock, Henry was regularly making his way to Pulaski Academy to catch balls and workout with former teammates.

“I want to be the best tight end in the country, for sure,” Henry said. “That’s what I want to be. I’ve got to go to work every single day and train and work hard. I want to be the best at my position, the best tight end in the country.”

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