Cleveland Shows He's Healthy Again

FAYETTEVILLE — Every day, Arkansas tight end Ben Cleveland feels some sort of pain in his neck and surgically repaired right toe.

It's not as bad as it was two years ago when he lost the strength in his left arm, and the situation has improved since last spring when he had a difficult time running at full speed.

Now, the pain the former Springdale High star feels on a daily basis is manageable. And considering how bad things once were for him, that's a good sign.

"The neck is fine. It's just when I get hit, it hurts a little bit. But (I) just shake it off," Cleveland said. "My toe, it's a little stiff, but it's nothing to worry about and we're just fighting through it."

Cleveland admits he feels healthier than he has in a long time, and his progress has been evident this spring. He's again making plays like he did as a freshman in 2006 before the injuries sidelined his career.

Andrew Davie's decision to leave Arkansas after his junior season to enter the NFL Draft has opened the door for Cleveland to get more reps in practice alongside starting tight end D.J. Williams.

Cleveland has worked with Arkansas' first-team offense when coaches call for him to line up with Williams on two-tight end sets.

The 6-foot-4, 249-pound junior has tried to become a more physical blocker, and he showed he could still make the tough catch when he reached up and snagged a 4-yard touchdown pass in last Friday's scrimmage.

"Ben is getting a lot better now that he's almost 100 percent, if not 100 percent. I'm not for sure, but he's getting a lot better and he's running good routes and catching the ball," Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett said.

"And I'm really glad to see that because he was hurt last year and he was frustrated. So now it's good to see him out there running around."

At one time, it was uncertain if Cleveland would get a chance to return to the field and show the type of playmaking ability he possessed when he was one of the highly touted members of the Springdale Five.

The tight end redshirted the 2007 season after doctors determined — after a battery of tests — that he had nerve damage in his brachical plexus, which runs from the spine, through the neck and into the arm.

As if that weren't bad enough, Cleveland was still bothered by the right index toe he had dislocated against Wisconsin in the 2007 Capital One Bowl.

"It aches every day, but you just go out there. And as (Arkansas strength and conditioning) coach (Jason Veltkamp) would say, just go out there and grind and just don't worry about it," Cleveland said of the pain in his neck and toe. "Because if you think about it, it's not going to get any better.

"If anything, it's going to just get worse."

Cleveland showed progress in limited action last season, appearing in nine games and making a 1-yard touchdown catch with 25 seconds left to help the Razorbacks nearly pull off a come-from-behind win at Mississippi State.

The junior looks even healthier this spring, so much so he recently bulldozed several Arkansas linebackers and defensive backs in a one-on-one tackling drill.

"He's had some good days and some bad days. He's got to get consistent," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "He certainly has the ability to help us in our two tight-end sets and get in there with D.J. and rotate in with D.J. and keep him fresh.

"He can block; he can run and catch the ball. His whole deal is concentration. Can he concentrate for 40, 50 plays in a row and do it day in and day out?"

Cleveland is giving it a shot.

Ben Cleveland

Position: Tight end.

Height: 6-foot-4.

Weight: 249 pounds.

Class: Junior.

Hometown: Springdale.

Notable: Cleveland's most memorable play as a Razorback came four games into his freshman season, when he reached up in between two defenders and caught the winning touchdown in double overtime against Alabama. ... He finished the 2006 season with 12 receptions for 103 yards and two touchdowns, marking the most catches by an Arkansas freshman tight end since current assistant coach Kirk Botkin had 12 in 1990. ... Cleveland redshirted the 2007 season and had only one catch — a 1-yard touchdown at Mississippi State — last season.

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