Sophomore Will Gragg / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
There’s something about opportunity that can make a new man out of a football player.
As a young player with veterans cemented above him, it’s easy for a college player to fade into the background or even not work quite as hard as he might if he saw a clear shot at playing time.
Obviously, that’s not what a coach wants, and ideally it’s not the attitude any player would prescribe for himself or others, but human nature is what it is. If there’s no glimmer of light for playing time, no carrot of making an impact on Saturdays, players, even very talented ones, can hold back or settle for being a backup.
Compound that with a position where talent is not the only key to playing time, like tight end, but also where a player must also block like a lineman as well as run routes and catch passes like a receiver, and early playing time isn’t always attainable from a physical and developmental standpoint.
That’s the position promising tight ends Cheyenne Grady (6-4, 253) of Fayetteville and Will Gragg (6-4, 254) of Dumas have found themselves in at Arkansas.
Both redshirted their first year for the Arkansas Razorbacks when Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle were perhaps the best one-two punch at tight end in the nation.
However, Henry and Sprinkle have matriculated out of the program and into the NFL, and playing time is now up for grabs. The opportunity is there.
The big question is whether the two sophomores will rise to the occasion and take hold of their chance to be impactful players for the Hogs or not?
O’Grady got his feet wet last year, playing in eight games, while Gragg did not earn a letter. O’Grady made his first catch in the Hogs’ 58-42 shootout victory over Mississippi State on Nov. 19. He made two catches for 40 yards and a touchdown in the Razorbacks’ 35-24 loss to Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl when Sprinkle was suspended for shoplifting.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has complimented O’Grady a few times, but has nearly always added a stinger to the young man who has had some issues with maturity since joining the Razorbacks.
A case in point was Thursday after the Razorbacks’ first practice of training camp in which O’Grady evidently had a nice day of work.
“In year’s past, I’ve had to yell at him a couple of times, so I think he did some good things and didn’t stand out for the wrong reasons,” Bielema said.
Bielema added O’Grady and Madison, Miss., sophomore Grayson Gunter (6-6, 232), who played in all 13 games last year on the kick-off return team and made a 29-yard catch against Mississippi State should make a good combo as the second tight end in certain formations.
Sophomore Austin Cantrell of Roland, Okla. leads the pack at tight end for the Hogs. Cantrell (6-3, 264) earned regular playing time and five starts last year as a redshirt freshman because of his physical nature. He has good hands, but is not quite as agile as O’Grady, Grayson or Gragg. What he is, though, is the nasty and aggressive blocker best suited to inject more power in the Razorbacks’ running game that sputtered at points last season.
Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney recently described his tight end group as Cantrell and everybody else prior to the start of practice.
Cantrell caught 13 passes last season for 120 yards and two touchdowns. Cantrell has been the only consistently productive tight end for Arkansas in games, but arguably Lunney coaches the best-stocked position on the team in terms of potential.
Junior Jack Krause (6-5, 248) of Bentonville has been a regular on special teams the past two seasons and is a solid blocker though not quite as aggressive as Cantrell.
Perhaps the most intriguing tight end on the Razorbacks’ roster is Jeremy Patton (6-5, 250) of Indianapolis, Ind. He was the top junior-college tight-end recruit in the nation last year, who was supposed to join Arkansas last spring, but did not arrive until recently.
Last season, Patton made 18 catches for 242 yards and six touchdowns for Western Arizona College, which went 11-1 and played in the National Junior College championship game. He chose Arkansas over a who’s who of college football teams, including Alabama, Auburn, and Southern Cal.
Again, Lunney has a very talented group to work with, and Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos has proven he can and will use the tight end as a weapon if he has the confidence in the personnel to do it.
The question is which two or three players from that talented pool of young players will join Cantrell as a player the Razorbacks can rely on in SEC play?
It seems that O’Grady and Gunter have a leg up in the competition at this time, but there is more than a month until the Razorbacks open the season at Little Rock on Aug. 31 against Florida A&M.
Beyond that it is a long season. Players can emerge along the way.
It will be interesting to look back in January to see which tight ends make an impact and which ones remain just faces in the crowd.
Practices are generally closed to the public, but on Aug. 12, the Razorbacks’ practice will be open in conjunction with Arkansas Fan Day.
The team will hold an open practice inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Players and coaches will be available for autographs later that afternoon inside Walker Indoor Pavilion. In addition, a kids zone will feature inflatables plus other fan activities throughout the indoor pavilion.
Times for the practice and autograph opportunity will be announced closer to the time of the event.
Arkansas will hold its Kickoff Luncheon on Aug. 18 at the Springdale Convention Center. The luncheon will feature head coach Bret Bielema, members of his coaching staff and the Razorback football team. Fans attending the luncheon will have the opportunity to meet and interact with Arkansas football personnel and student-athletes.
Tickets are $30 each. To order tickets, visit razorbackfoundation.com or contact the Razorback Foundation at 479-443-9000.