FAYETTEVILLE — When Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg went down with a season-ending ankle injury last week, junior Ben Cleveland knew exactly what it meant.
Now, more than ever, the Razorbacks need him to stay healthy.
It's a strong statement, considering Cleveland has basically spent two years on the sideline because of injuries. But with the Razorbacks down to two tight ends with experience, the junior knows it's true. And he wants to prove he can be dependable.
"When something happened (in the past), I just said, ‘Forget about this. My body is hurting too bad,'" Cleveland said. "I'm way above that right now. The way my body feels, it's torture. But I've got to have mental toughness and fight through it."
The oft-injured Cleveland was expendable last season because the Razorbacks had two quality tight ends in D.J. Williams and Andrew Davie. However, Davie is now trying to make an NFL roster and Gragg — another hopeful at the position who had a large role in the passing game — won't be back until the spring.
So all eyes are on Cleveland, who understands he still has to earn his playing time in an offense that takes advantage of the tight end in the passing game. A good place to start is by finding a way to shake off any aches and pains to stay on the field.
"Some days your body feels good," Cleveland said. "Other days your body feels bad. It's just a day-to-day thing. You've just got to go out there and just keep working at it."
Cleveland showed he is talented enough to do the job during the first scrimmage, catching a 22-yard pass over the middle despite taking a big hit from safety Anthony Leon. He caught two more passes, including a 12-yard touchdown from quarterback Ryan Mallett, during Saturday's scrimmage.
But there have been problems. Petrino dismissed Cleveland during Friday's practice. He also has missed time during the first week with a neck stinger, which has prompted Arkansas to consider other options like converted defensive end Colton Nash.
"Ben has been a little banged up and in and out of practice," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "That's why we moved Colton over there. Someone is going to have to step up and fill that role. We'll just have to see who that is."
Cleveland continued to work with the first-team in Arkansas' two tight end packages during Tuesday's practice. He has shown the ability to catch, run and block in the offense, too.
There's no doubt he is the most experienced player at the position outside of Williams. He has 13 career receptions, while Nash, Joseph Henry and Austin Tate have none.
It's a sign Cleveland remains the likely choice to fill the void behind Williams in 2009. But only if he can stay healthy.
"One man goes down, it's hard to pick up the slack," Williams said of Gragg's injury. "But I think Ben has done a great job of fighting through hard practices. I think he's going to be all right."
Inside the ... Tight Ends
Best of the Bunch: D.J. Williams. The junior led the team in receptions last season and is on the Mackey Award watch list. He has worked extensively on his blocking in the offseason and Arkansas hopes he'll be more of a complete player in 2009.
Watch Out For: Colton Nash. The freshman moved to the position last week after opening camp as a defensive end. Nash fits the Chris Gragg mold, but how quickly can he learn the offense? Will it be quick enough to contribute immediately?
Biggest Strength: Williams and Cleveland are a pair of sure-handed pass catchers that can make a difference. Williams' talent is known after last season. Cleveland may have been forgotten, but showed flashes as a freshman in 2006.
Biggest Question: Can the group stay healthy? Williams, Cleveland and Joseph Henry have missed time this preseason with injuries. Gragg is done for the year. Arkansas likes multiple tight end sets in its offense, but depth could cause problems.
Projected Starter: D.J. Williams
Key Contributors: Ben Cleveland, Joseph Henry, Colton Nash
That Figures: 61 — D.J. Williams' receptions in 2008, which was one shy of tying the school's single-season mark. Former Razorback J.J. Meadors caught 22 passes in 1995.
The Lingo: "Nothing here is going to be given to you. If I don't get it done or if D.J. doesn't get it done, they'll just go spread (offense) and use four or five receivers." — Ben Cleveland on the importance of Arkansas' tight ends producing
Can Cleveland Stay Healthy?
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