Murphy Emerges In Tight Battle At Tight End

FAYETTEVILLE -- Wes Murphy has encountered more than his share of roadblocks on the way to his current station as a regular tight end for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

After playing his junior year of high school for coach Gus Malzahn at Shiloh Christian in Springdale and helping the Saints win a state title, Murphy couldn't play his senior year because he'd already competed for eight semesters.

He saw action in nine games as a true freshmen at Arkansas in 2002. Then in preseason of his sophomore year in 2003, Murphy was found to have an enlarged heart. It took two medical opinions, one from the Mayo Clinic, to clear him to play.

Murphy, athletic at 6-foot-3 and 268 pounds, played 11 games that year as a defensive reserve and special teamer. But after switching to tight end, he redshirted last season.

"Then after last spring, I didn't know if I was ever going to play," Murphy said. "I was doing terrible."

Fortunately for Murphy, the UA coaches kept faith in him.

"Coach (Clifton) Ealy and coach (Mike) Markuson worked with me, coach (Bobby) Allen said I was a natural tight end from the get-go and coach (Roy) Wittke believed in me," Murphy said. "After the scrimmage last week, they said I was ready. They said I played physical, finished my blocks well and ran good routes."

Ealy, Arkansas' tight ends coach, said this week, "Mason Templeton started at No. 1, but he's leveled off a little bit. Right now Wes would be a starter."

Senior Jared Hicks and redshirt freshmen Marc Winston and Lance Thompson are also part of a lively competition at tight end.

"Hicks is the most versatile, and he's having a great fall camp," said Wittke, the UA quarterbacks coach who likes passes to the tight ends. "Winston is starting to play faster and be more physical.

"Wes has tremendous potential because of his body and his physical skills. There may be a light turning on in him now; he's got a new lease on life. But he still has to prove it on Saturday."

Templeton, a 6-7, 258-pound sophomore who led Arkansas' tight ends with 31 knockdown blocks last season, is eager to redeem himself in Saturday's 6 p.m. scrimmage.

"I like to think of myself as a good blocker," Templeton said. "I had a good start in fall camp, but then I had a couple of busts in the last scrimmage. I did all the summer workouts, but I've been out of the game a few months and I didn't work that much on the playbook. I'm counting on stepping up on Saturday."

Murphy, after dehydrating in Arkansas' second practice, has come on like gangbusters.

"I give all the honor to God," Murphy said.

That didn't surprise Malzahn, now Springdale's coach, who recalled, "Wes was an outstanding receiver for us at Shiloh his junior year. He made some unbelievable catches, he was real coachable and a joy to be around. He moved to defense that year after be broke his finger."

A native of Cuthbert, Ga., Murphy is the son of Felton Murphy and the late Diane Murphy. He's a sociology major who made the Lon Farrell Academic Honor Roll in 2003-04.

"Wes lived with an aunt in high school and he was at Fayetteville one semester before he came by my office at Shiloh Christian one day and said he'd like to play for us," Malzahn said. "When I saw he'd become a starter this week, I called to congratulate him."

On Wednesday, UA head coach Houston Nutt said, "Wes is very physical at the point of attack. We've got a little depth going at tight end now."

Templeton noticed, too.

"Wes is doing a great job this fall camp," Templeton said. "He's a real physical blocker, and he's got good hands. It's good competition. We line up with two tight ends a lot; last year I played in every game."

Templeton, a Burnet, Texas, native, caught six passes for 64 yards last season.

"Burnet is near Austin," he said. "Texas recruited me but didn't offer a scholarship. When I visited here, I really liked it."

During his redshirt year of 2003, Templeton traveled with the Hogs to Austin when they beat Texas 38-28.

"That was awesome," he said. "My friends back home wouldn't take my calls for two weeks, because they knew I was going to rub it in. Matt   Jones had an incredible game that day."

Hicks, one of Jones' best friends, caught eight passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns last season while dealing with a sprained shoulder. In his 32-game career, he's caught 13 passes for 154 yards.

"Jared has worked hard to rehab his shoulder," Templeton said. "This is his senior year, and nothing is going to keep him from playing."

Murphy agreed.

"Hicks is the most experienced tight end right now," he said. "Templeton has a big body and he may be the best at catching the ball. Winston is coming along well. He and I are the newest at the tight end position, and he knows more than me. I've tried to listen better, and I'm starting to understand."

When Hicks was on defense, he said UA line coach Tracy Rocker "really enforced being physical and using my hands."

Wittke said the key to Murphy's emergence has been his "tremendous attitude."

"Sometimes it's tough on a kid to move from defense to offense," Wittke said. "But we felt Wes had a chance to be a physical guy at tight end. He's got good legs, and we've been pleasantly surprised with his route-running. The most important thing has been his attitude. I'm thrilled to death to see him do well. He deserves it."

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