FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — When Hunter Henry arrived at Arkansas as a true freshman prior to the 2013 season, lining up in a three-point stance was a bit of a foreign concept to him.
He spent his high school career in a spread offense at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, racking up eye-popping statistics (107 receptions for 1,449 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior season).
Bret Bielema’s teams, however, use the tight end in the traditional sense -- as a blocker and a receiver.
“I blocked linebackers and corners, but I never put my hand down [in high school],” Henry said.
As Henry made the adjustment, Bielema recalls Arkansas’ trip to The Swamp in 2013 and Henry’s rough encounter with then-Florida linebacker Ronald Powell.
“There was this play against Florida where [Powell] just took him and threw him down,” Bielema said. “Hunter was a little intimidated. I said 'Bro, now you can do that to whoever you want. Because now you weigh 255 pounds and you can do that.'”
Henry took the message to heart and developed into a reliable dual-threat tight end who can block and catch proficiently. He's unquestionably one of the SEC’s top tight ends.
“He's very talented, very smart,” new Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos said. “Has that God-given body, has the character and work ethic to go along with that talent. He's a super player, a great young man. Body control, ball skills, smart route-runner, very good player.”
The 6-foot-5 Henry didn’t take long to make an impact upon arrival. He caught five passes for 75 yards in his true freshman debut and took only five games before recording his first career 100-yard receiving game against Texas A&M in 2013. In 2014, Henry improved his catch and receiving yard totals to 37 and 513, respectively, and with improving quarterback Brandon Allen entering his senior season and Enos looking to feature his tight ends, Henry could be primed for a career year in 2015.
“He's one of our go-to [guys] now,” Allen said. “He's a guy that can make every tough catch, he can make catches in traffic, he can get himself open, he's a huge mismatch for people trying to cover him.”
Last season Henry had good company at his position with converted quarterback AJ Derby emerging into a solid option at tight end (22 catches for 303 yards). With Derby graduating, 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior Jeremy Sprinkle looks to step into his role and provide the Razorbacks with two big, athletic tight ends who will provide matchup challenges for opposing defenses. Sprinkle, coaches and teammates say, “runs like a deer.”
“Jeremy got a lot bigger from the year past; he put on about 30 pounds and is still running like a wide receiver,” Allen said. “He's so long, it takes him three strides to get 20 yards down the field. That kind of speed, it's going to be another mismatch. He's hard as heck to guard.”
Said Bielema about his tight end duo: “When you have two of them, now you've got something. It's hard to match two of them.”
After two productive seasons, expectations are high for Henry’s junior year. Not only is he a quality receiver, he’s a timely option for Allen. Henry has the highest percentage of receptions that result in a first down or a touchdown amongst SEC tight ends in the past two seasons (with a minimum of 20 games played): A whopping 78.5 percent of his catches result in first downs or touchdowns. Only one other tight end in the Power 5 conferences has a higher percentage (Minnesota’s Maxx Williams, 82 percent). Henry and Sprinkle were the most-targeted players in Arkansas' spring game Saturday (they tied with a team-high four catches each), and it's clear Enos wants them to be a significant factor in the passing game.
Henry is proud of his development as a blocker, too. Though three-point stances weren’t part of his high school career, he learned the technique during his week at the Under Armour All-American Game following his senior season at Pulaski, and Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. has done a “tremendous job” developing Henry, according to Bielema.
“I love blocking,” Henry said. “I love sticking my head in there and blocking, but I think that's a key tool for a tight end. If you can stick your head in there and block, that's just going to lull some safeties off guard or a linebacker and then you're able to get a step on them and beat them down the field.”
The SEC knows Henry well, but Allen feels like he’ll become more known across the nation this fall.
“I think a lot of guys, especially teams we play, they know about Hunter,” Allen said. “They've done their homework on our film, and they know he's probably one of the best tight ends in the country. I think after this year, he'll get a lot more national recognition. If not one of the best, he might be the best tight end in the nation.”