Even if it was the first closed practice of the University of Arkansas football preseason, one thing was clear on Wednesday.
That is even if there are a few injuries to the tight ends in practice, there's now enough of them around that it won't throw a wrench in practice.
Such is the assessment of Razorback tight end coach Clifton Ealy, who had two of his charges - Jared Hicks and Wes Murphy - suffer slight injuries.
But the poisition was still able to do something and the other three varsity guys - Mason Templeton, Marc Winston and Lance Thompson - stepped in and got more reps.
"I've got depth this year and I'm loving it," Ealy said. "Last year if we got one hurt in practice we were about through. We had to go three wides, four wides and one back. But this year we have enough to just kind of plug them in."
Hicks and the tight ends are expected to play a bigger role this year since the starting quarterback will be more of a traditional guy than the multi-talented Matt Jones, who was known to tuck it and run instead of settling for short gain to the tight end.
"With Matt, he did have a tendency even if we were open to not want to dump it for a short gain, but tried to wait until somebody got open deep or just take off and use us as a blocker," Hicks said. "I think whoever is the quarterback this year will be more of content to dump it off if there is pressure. That's what the tight end is there for. If there is pressure, he is able to slip out on a hot route and make a play. It's pretty exciting for us all."
Ealy echos that same sentiment and notes that the tight ends combined for over 30 catches in 2003, but just 14 in 2004.
"In Matt's junior year we had Jason Peters - who had 24 or 25 catches - and Hicks - who had five or six - so we had about 30 from that position in 2003," Ealy said. "We were looking for that same number in 2004 even though we had just one proven tight end coming back, but in the first ballgame Hicks hurts his shoulder and Matt doesn't have proven guys. He was scared to throw it to Hicks because of his shoulder and we only had about 14. We intend to get back on track this year."
Hicks was the starter in 2004, but was booted to fourth team when he got in some legal trouble in the spring. That is where he starts this campaign.
"You are going to have your ups and downs in life and that was one of them," Hicks said. "I made a bad decision and I paid for it. Now I am setting at fourth team for it and it's frustrating, but the coaching staff is being fair with me. We are starting over with a clean slate and I've put it behind me. Right now it is just a motivation for me to get back to the number one spot where I was last year."
Ealy is proud of the way Hicks has come back to preseason practice.
"He has accepted that position that he has put himself in," Ealy said. "We have put him down to fourth team and he has to show to us day-to-day he has to show us something. Now he sees the competition in front of him and knows he has to.
"But Mason is not ready to give it up, Marc doesn't want to give the second spot up and Murphy's right there at third," Ealy said. "There are some battles going on, which is a lot better than we have had in the past."
Ealy is anxious to get the full pads on his group and see how they respond.
"We're going to need all five of them because any time you have guys blocking, there are going to be injuries because of all the collisions," Ealy said. "But if there are five guys we can count on - and right now we think we do - we'll be great. We'll put the full pads on Saturday and find out a little more.
"Hicks and Templeton have been in the battle, but the rest have not," Ealy said. "Now we have got to see if those other three."
He did praise Winston for his effort in Wednesday's practice.
"Winston has showed something, which is a good sign," Ealy said. "In the one-on-one real early in practice today, he showed the physicalness we have been looking for from him. That was impressive."
Hicks says he hopes - and expects the passes to come to the tight ends this year - but he also is well aware of what the gig is at Arkansas with offensive line coach Mike Markuson.
"To be honest with you, to be a tight end here you have to learn to block first and foremost," Hicks said. "We run a physical offense here and Coach Markuson demands the same of us and he does the offensive linemen. You don't block. you don't play. But I think we have guys this year who can make the catches as well as the blocks."
Despite his current fourth-team status, Hicks is anxious to show that he can be a leader to the group.
"I'm trying to have a leadership role because I have been there longer than the other guys and I guess I've tried to take them under my wing and help them out a little bit," Hicks said. "The competition is great. Each one of those guys has gotten nothing but better.
"Each guy does bring a little different something to the table," Hicks said. "Marc was more of a wide receiver in high school and he'll catch anything that's around him. So will Mason, but he has more experience and a more physical mentality. I feel good about all of them."
o o o
Arkansas moved its practice from 3:30 p.m. - as it had been on Monday and Tuesday - to 5:30 on Wednesday. That's the same time it will be on Thursday according to UA head coach Houston Nutt.
"This was good for us to be able to move down a little bit later in the evening," Nutt said. "It's a little bit cooler. I think we got some more things accomplished. We had just maybe one guy fall out today and that was Chase Pressley right there at the end of practice.
"We covered a lot of situations - some 3rd-and-8, some 3rd-and-medium and we did some situational things with 15 seconds to go in the first half, 15 seconds in the last part of the game," Nutt continued. "What are you going to do when you are two points behind, getting your field goal unit on - things like that. We're just putting them in situations. It was a good practice. We are getting better."
Although college teams are limited to one practice early on, it doesn't mean Arkansas isn't getting the most out of the day even if they are having to battle summer school as well.
"The only difference is we've had morning walk throughs instead of that practice," Nutt said. "It has been good. It's good teaching. The biggest difference, to answer your question, is school," he said. "The tough part is some of the guys are working for finals, studying for finals so not having everybody there.
Nutt had a long list of guys to praise after the workout including freshman running backs Felix Jones and Darren McFadden, the entire first offensive line of Kyle Roper , Tony Ugoh, Stephen Parker, Zac Tubbs and Robert Felton; defensive ends Desmond Sims and Anthony Brown, safety Desmond Williams and wideouts Marcus Monk and Cedric Logan.
He said those think he is open to moving McFadden to defense need to forget that.
"I'm not open," Nutt said. "He's on offense. We said from the start he's going to have to play his way out of tailback. That's been our mindset, he'll have to play his way out and right now he is not doing that.
Nutt also added that new defensive coordinator Reggie Herring really has the defense going.
"Defense is really moving, and you don't get many free pitch-and-catches with these guys," Nutt said. "They disrupt you at the line of scrimmage, and it makes it really hard."
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