Several tight ends could become household names at Arkansas under Bret Bielema and Jim Chaney in the future. The Razorbacks want the tight ends to be the most versatile players on the field, doing many different things such as sealing an edge on outside runs, double team and lead through to a linebacker on inside runs, block down field on quick screens, motion into the backfield, pass block on play action, and of course, get open down field and catch passes.
Bret Bielema has said that he prefers to have 2-3 tight ends that can excel in all phases of the game in order to keep teams from focusing on the primary target. Hunter Henry was the only player that showed he could stay on the field in all situations last season. Without another tight end threat in the passing game, opponents were able to focus on Henry and rotate coverage his way later in the season. The increased attention during SEC play and some nagging injuries led to less production from Henry during some key games like Auburn, South Carolina, and Mississippi State.
Jeremy Sprinkle was able to add a receiving threat and make some big plays but was not put in the rotation as a blocker very often. Austin Tate, Alex Voelzke and Mitchel Loewen were used in the multiple T.E. formations mostly as extra blockers.
Spring 2014 Tight Ends on Arkansas Roster - Originally
Mitchell Loewen tore an ACL in the beginning of spring and it's uncertain when Arkansas will get him back, and Demetrius Dean is no longer with the team.
Bret Bielema's Success With Tight Ends
Bret Bielema currently has four tight ends in the NFL. Owen Daniels, Lance Kendricks, Jake Byrne, and Garrett Graham.
There are some similarities between Owen Daniels and AJ Derby. Not saying Derby will play to the level of Owen Daniels, they just have a similar body type and background. Both played quarterback in high school and started their career as a quarterback in college.
Derby is 6'5 250 and runs a 4.7-4.8 40. Daniels is 6'3 250 but ran a 4.65 at the NFL Combine, and was drafted in the 4th round in 2006 (2 Pro Bowls with Houston Texans).
The Draft Scouting report for Daniels sounds a lot like what Derby has shown so far at tight end. Derby has good hands, enough quickness to beat linebackers at the line but will struggle when lined up blocking in the box. He will most likely be used in motion as an Hback type more often than a traditional TE.
Whether he will excel at the position or not is hard to tell, and depends on his ability to adjust. Sounds like he has embraced the change in spring so far. Coaches have raved about him. Bielema even said Derby at tight end "changed our offense overnight". Moving him into the tight end rotation will add another weapon if he is able to become a reliable threat in the passing game and depth to a group that is a little thin.
What To Expect From Tight Ends in 2014
Out of 150 total receptions as a team in 2013 the TEs accounted for 35 of those catches. Hunter Henry caught 28 of them himself. The TE group accounted for almost 24% of the receptions and for 29% of the total receiving yards. I think in 2014 the percentage of passes thrown to the TEs will increase even more. It wouldn't even shock me if almost 1/2 of all passes to go to a tight end in 2014.
In play action, Henry, Sprinkle, Voelzke and Derby are likely to be frequent targets. This must be a priority to keep the defense from stacking the box against the run.
Alex Voelzke and Jeremy Sprinkle will see increased roles in two and three tight end sets. Sprinkle has been getting lots of positive comments from the coaches and could very well be one of the biggest surprises in the fall. For him to be productive he will need to improve his blocking in the run game. He has all the tools to pick up critical third downs in the passing game, but needs to show improvement in run blocking between now and Aug. 30th.
The tight end position looks to be in good shape going into 2014. A year of experience for Hunter Henry and more time to develop physically for Jeremy Sprinkle should allow the play calling to expand. Being able to show various looks in both pass or run situations was limited last season by who was on the field at tight end.
Using Voelzke more, adding Derby on 3rd downs, and the consistent threat of Hunter Henry and Sprinkle from anywhere on the field is going to make this group successful. In year two as a starter Brandon Allen will have to rely on his tight ends as check downs and go to receivers to pick up first downs.
Tight ends should be a huge component of Arkansas' offense this season.