SEC: Hunter Henry
That might not sound like much, but it’s the next step in the rebuilding process that is beginning to take shape for second-year coaches Bret Bielema and Butch Jones. By next year, it’s not crazy to think that both the Razorbacks and the Vols could make a run in the SEC.
So we pose the question: Which school, Arkansas or Tennessee, has a brighter future and which is better equipped to win finish near the top of their division in 2015?
Tennessee has played 23 true freshmen this season. That’s insane. But it goes to show how talented that 2014 recruiting class was, and can you imagine players like Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone and Derek Barnett after a year in Knoxville? They’ll go through a full offseason with conditioning, spring practice, summer workouts, everything. Those 23 true freshmen will be bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced next year.
My one concern with this team early in the season was that Justin Worley was a senior, and they really didn’t have a “quarterback of the future” to turn to next year. Then I saw Joshua Dobbs rally the Vols back against South Carolina.
For as much as Dobbs struggled last year, he’s played outstanding this year. In three games, he’s thrown for 790 yards, rushed for 289 yards and scored a combined 11 touchdowns. And he’s only a sophomore. I’ll take that any day over whatever Allen brother is under center at Arkansas, and make no mistake about it -- this is a quarterback-driven league.
Sam Khan: Tennessee has a little bit of an advantage because it plays in the SEC East, which is more wide open, but I think Arkansas is the pick here. Despite their record it’s easy to see the gradual progress under Bielema. Last season the Razorbacks, even though they didn’t win an SEC game, got more competitive later in the season.
This year, the Razorbacks were competitive from the jump and continued to knock on the door of a win against the SEC West’s best teams but couldn’t quite knock it down until last week, finally scoring a win over LSU. I think that win is going to be a significant building block and springboard into next season for this group. I think they’ve made nice strides defensively under new coordinator Robb Smith and clearly they have the offensive line and running game to test anybody and under Bielema, that won’t change.
Ostendorf: I hate to admit this, but I agree that Arkansas would have the better record if it were in the East. I’d go as far as to say that the Razorbacks are the better team this year. But we’re not talking about this year. We’re talking about next year. And next year, the Hogs lose five seniors from their defense including All-SEC defensive end Trey Flowers and leading tackler Martrell Spaight. Meanwhile, Tennessee is expected to return eight starters on defense.
And the bad news for Arkansas is that it’s still going to be in the West next year. There’s no changing that. Good luck playing Alabama, Auburn, the two Mississippi schools and an LSU team that will be much improved by the beginning of next season.
We’ll find out who the better team is next October when they meet. Oh and did I mention the game is in Neyland Stadium?
As for the future, Jones has assembled another top-10 class so far in 2015. The Vols already have 26 commitments, including eight ranked in the ESPN 300. Pair this year’s freshman class with that class, and it’s scary how much talent will be in Knoxville. The fans just have to hope that the rumors of Jones going to Michigan aren’t true. He’s building a winner, brick by brick.
Khan: Did you just use “brick by brick”? Are you also going to call the 2015 Vols “Team 119”?
I will give you this: You’re right about recruiting. Jones has done a magnificent job hauling in talent and that’s critical to success. But a lot of those great freshmen playing this year will only be sophomores next year. A year of experience is nice but it might be asking a lot for a still-young team to make a real run at a division title.
Arkansas has most of its offense returning next season. The entire starting backfield will be back. That great Razorbacks’ offensive line? Only one senior starter on it (Brey Cook). Dynamic tight end Hunter Henry will be back as will leading receiver Keon Hatcher, the teams’ two top pass-catchers.
Defensively, Flowers is tough to lose but he’s the only senior on the defensive line depth chart. The Razorbacks will have work to do to replace some of the senior losses on the second and third level of the defense for sure.
As for the West, the Razorbacks have proven they can beat LSU. Who knows what Mississippi State and Ole Miss will look like next year (the Rebels graduate Bo Wallace; we’ll see if Dak Prescott returns or tries the draft). Texas A&M doesn’t look like a sure thing with no firm answer at quarterback and a floundering defense. And Auburn is losing steam down the stretch. The Razorbacks played them tight for a half in the season opener; I wonder how that game would play out if the teams played today.
I think the outlook is bright for the Hogs next year. Wooo Pig.
We should also mention the impacts that Mississippi State defensive back Will Redmond (intercepted a pass at the goal line in the closing seconds to preserve a 17-10 win over Arkansas), Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett (notched 3.5 sacks to bring his season total to 11, a new record for SEC freshmen) and Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary (matched a school record with five touchdown passes) made on their teams' respective wins, but we can only make five sticker picks.
Here are our choices from another memorable Saturday in college football's toughest conference:
QB Nick Marshall, Auburn: We easily could have gone with running back Cameron Artis-Payne (27 carries, 143 yards, TD) or receiver Sammie Coates (five catches, 122 yards, TD), but we'll take Marshall. The senior coolly led the Tigers back from a 10-point deficit in the second half by repeatedly converting on third down (the Tigers were 5-for-7 in the second half) against No. 4 Ole Miss. Marshall led the No. 3 Tigers to a huge SEC win by completing 15 of 22 passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and rushing for 50 yards and two scores.
QB Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee: Making his first start of the season, the sophomore helped Tennessee rally from a two-touchdown deficit in the last five minutes of regulation and then beat South Carolina 45-42 in overtime. Dobbs set a new single-game school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (166 yards, including touchdowns of 7, 36 and 3 yards) and passed for 301 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He hit Jason Croom with a 9-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
WR Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: Normally we wouldn't hand a helmet sticker to a guy on a losing team, but Cooper can't play defense, too. He caught 11 passes for a school-record 233 yards and touchdowns of 12 and 85 yards. He ran for an 11-yard score. He tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Wilds. And he even recovered a late onside kick. South Carolina surrendered 645 yards to Tennessee, which obviously put a damper on the evening for the Gamecocks, but Cooper was simply phenomenal.
Florida's running game: We're not just giving stickers to running backs Kelvin Taylor (25 carries for 197 yards and touchdowns of 2 and 65 yards) and Matt Jones (25 carries for 192 yards and touchdowns of 44 and 1 yards) in Saturday's 38-20 rout of No. 11 Georgia. Florida's offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, helping their tailback tandem roll up most of the Gators' 60 rushing attempts for 418 yards. Only one opponent (Auburn with 430 yards in 1978) has ever run for more yards against a Georgia defense. Everyone involved with Florida's running game deserves recognition after Saturday's upset win.
DE Shane Ray, Missouri: The Tigers' offense was slightly improved in Saturday's 20-10 win against Kentucky, but the day belonged to Ray and the defense. Ray notched a pair of sacks -- including a fourth-down sack of Patrick Towles on Kentucky's final play -- to raise his season total to 12. In the process, he broke Missouri's single-season record of 11.5 sacks previously held by Aldon Smith and Michael Sam.
Once possessing a two-touchdown, second-half lead and on the verge of making it three touchdowns, the Razorbacks gave No. 6 Texas A&M all it could handle on Saturday at AT&T Stadium. They had the Aggies on the ropes; all they needed was one decisive knockout blow.
They couldn’t land it. As a result, the Razorbacks (3-2, 0-2 SEC) remain on the hunt for their first league win since 2012.
“When you got your foot on somebody’s throat, keep on it,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said after his team’s 35-28 overtime loss to Texas A&M. “I think we need to have that killer mentality, to put that thing away.”
In their season opener against Auburn, they went toe-to-toe with the Tigers for a half before Auburn broke the game open in the third quarter. On Saturday, the Razorbacks looked even better -- and probably should have won, considering how they controlled the game in the first three quarters.
“For whatever reason, we weren't able to have the success we wanted to in the end here,” Bielema said. “But there are a lot of positive steps. But I didn't fly to Dallas to make a positive step. I came here to win, and I think our players did, and to get that close and to not have it, it's a critical week for us.”
That’s the kind of mentality that has to be fostered if the Razorbacks are going to start closing these types of games out. The SEC West is unapologetically difficult. Arkansas’ schedule is brutal down the stretch after their open date this week. Alabama is waiting on the other side of it. So are dates with Georgia, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri.
What’s clear is the Hogs have a system and a style they believe in and they continue to improve while staying true to both. Bielema has a well-documented history of success with his teams playing this physical, old-school style, and the seeds are being planted for future success in Fayetteville now. There is quality on both the offensive and defensive lines and that’s where everything starts. Their running back tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams is a challenge for any team to deal with.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin argued leading up to Saturday's game that Arkansas should have been considered to be a top-25 team. The Razorbacks validated that opinion for much of the day, and it's clear Arkansas is moving closer to being a real factor in the SEC.
The disconnect came late for the Razorbacks, who couldn’t close things out Saturday. By leaving the door creaked open slightly, the Aggies burst right through it, scoring a come-from-behind win, something they’re quite used to. The Aggies have learned how to finish tight games in their still-young SEC tenure. The Razorbacks, in their second season under Bielema, are still learning how to close games out against good teams in crunch time, perhaps signaling the difference between where the two programs are currently.
The Razorbacks were on the losing end of an SEC game for the 14th consecutive time because of critical mistakes that prevented them from building an even bigger lead than the 14-point advantage they once held Saturday.
In the first quarter, Arkansas fumbled a center-snap exchange in Texas A&M territory that killed a drive. In the second, a 34-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Allen to Hunter Henry was wiped off the board thanks to a holding penalty by left tackle Dan Skipper. In the fourth, a 56-yard run by Williams all the way to the Texas A&M 2-yard line was also revoked because of a tripping call on Skipper. If not for the penalty, Arkansas would have had a prime opportunity for a 21-point lead.
“It comes down to playing clean and not doing anything to hurt ourselves,” Allen said. “That’s what it came down to [Saturday]. Anytime you get those big plays called back on something you’re doing to yourself, it’s tough to win.”
Bielema and everyone in that locker room knew that minus those mistakes, things could have been different. Even so, the Razorbacks had their chance to finish late, missing a field goal, breaking down on defense and not getting a first down in overtime. They couldn’t take advantage of their opportunities. The Aggies made them pay for it as a result.
What's clear though, is that the necessary steps are being taken in Fayetteville, but growth doesn't come without growing pains. Saturday was evidence of both for Arkansas.
“There's a lot of really good things coming,” Bielema said. “This could be a very exciting time ahead of us.”
At the center of it all stands Hunter Henry. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound tight end was one of the best true freshmen in the SEC last season, finishing with 28 receptions, 409 yards and four touchdowns. Against Texas A&M, he had 109 yards on four receptions. A few weeks later against Alabama, he proved to be a matchup nightmare yet again, splitting the defense on one play that picked up 25 yards.
One reason for that was fairly obvious. He simply didn’t know the offense like he should. He knew his job on each play, but hadn’t had time to understand the concepts of everyone involved. The nuances of the game -- breaking in and out of each route, feeling for the soft spot in the defense, etc. -- hadn’t come to him.
The other reason for his struggles was physical. Two games in, he banged his knee and was forced to sit out against Southern Miss. Then, about the halfway point of the season, he injured his other knee. Against South Carolina, he failed to catch a pass. Against Auburn, he caught just one ball. A few weeks later, in an overtime loss to Mississippi State, he had just two receptions for 14 yards.
"I had some fluid and muscular issues,” Henry said. "It was really weird. I’ve never had anything like it. It was bothering me from really opening up my stride and really running at my full potential."
Despite getting his knee drained "a couple of times," the tightness lingered. He couldn’t get to his second gear, he said.
Now, after some time to rest, he said he feels great. And judging by the word of his quarterback, he is playing like it -- from the neck up as much as the neck down.
"Physically, he’s in better shape," Allen said. "He’s more conditioned and built up a lot of muscle.
"The biggest thing is the maturity level. Going from being a freshman last year to now, his maturity level is off the charts. He’s seeing defenses and seeing coverages a lot better. He’s understanding how to get himself open within the coverage."
That could spell trouble for opposing defenses.
"They’ll be prepared for him," Allen said. "But you can be as prepared as you want, because great players are going to make great plays, and I think Hunter is a great player. It doesn’t matter if defenses are tailored for him or not, he’s going to get himself open."
That might be true. But Henry’s teammates need to play more of a supporting role than they did last season when defenses were able to double- and triple-team him without paying the price.
Those around the program say to expect a major upgrade at receiver. Keon Hatcher returns after ending last season on a good note, Demetrius Wilson is back from his torn ACL and Cody Hollister is poised to make an impact as a sophomore.
Then there are the young guns like Kendrick Edwards, who stands 6-foot-6. Jared Cornelius will "make people miss" in the slot, according to Allen. And Jojo Robinson, a former four-star prospect, has 4.4 speed and could find his way into the rotation, too.
"They’ve seen what [Henry] can do," Allen said. "So it’s going to be up to a lot of people to step up and make plays besides him."
For Arkansas, it’s all about finding the right complimentary weapons. The receivers must open up things for the tight ends. The tight ends and the receivers must then open up things for the running backs. And at the end of it all, Allen must execute.
"We have three great running backs," Allen said, counting sophomore Korliss Marshall along with Collins and Williams. "I feel like them pounding the ball is definitely going to be tough on a lot of defenses and cause them to put more people in the box and try to stop them. That, in turn, is going to open up the passing game.
"Our passing game has come a long way from last year. We have receivers making plays, understanding the routes and how to win one-on-ones. I feel like our passing game is night and day. It’s much better, and we obviously have a great running game to go with it."
Having that big, powerful tight end who can knock defenders around and stretch the field is turning into more of a necessity for NFL offenses, and college coaches are taking notice.
“I definitely think it's a trend going on right now,” Vanderbilt tight end Steven Scheu said. “Tight ends are starting to become just a larger receiver, quite honestly, especially when you have guys who are tight ends in the NFL trying to get their contracts signed as a wide receiver because they're taking most of their snaps out wide."
In the SEC, most coaches are on board with having that lovely mismatch of size and athleticism lining up inside. Finding multifaceted players who create advantageous mismatches is the name of the game.
In 2011, 14 tight ends ranked inside the top 50 in the NFL in receiving. Those tight ends were targeted 1,526 times and caught 1,006 passes for 12,422 yards and 91 touchdowns. Last year, the NFL saw nine tight ends rank in the top 50 in receiving, catching 723 passes for 8,686 yards and 85 touchdowns. Those tight ends were targeted 1,088 times.
For the SEC, eight tight ends ranked among the top 50 in the league in receiving in 2011. Those eight tight ends caught 233 passes for 2,771 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, as only three tight ends ranked inside the top 50 of the SEC in receiving yards last season, after five ranked in the top 50 in 2012.
But coaches see those numbers increasing in the coming years, as the tight end becomes more valued. There's a reason Florida coach Will Muschamp jumped at the chance to sign former Virginia tight end Jake McGee, who can play inside and outside and caught 71 passes for 769 yards and seven touchdowns in his last two years at Virginia.
To Muschamp, that kind of player changes blocking schemes for defenses, creating more holes and space for the offense, and can take bigger linebackers and safeties out of plays.
“That changes run gaps, that creates an extra gap,” Muschamp said. “It also creates an extra gap away from the quarterback. From a protection standpoint and a run-game standpoint, it does some good things to be able to utilize a tight end in the game.
“To be able to match up on a linebacker -- to have a guy who athletically is superior to a safety -- and to be able to find those matchups is huge.”
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin didn't use much of a flex tight end at Houston, but emphasized them more as an offensive coordinator at A&M and Oklahoma. He could do it again this year with the 277-pound Cameron Clear and deep threat Ricky Seals-Jones playing inside.
Mississippi State owns one of the leagues most consistent players in Malcolm Johnson (768 career yards), and rival Ole Miss has the perfect safety net in flex Evan Engram.
Arkansas' best receiving threat might be sophomore Hunter Henry, who averaged 14.6 yards per catch last year.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has had a ton of success with tight ends and hopes to make up for his losses at receiver by using his tight ends and bigger receivers inside.
South Carolina has thrived by using Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams to stretch the field the last couple of years. Anderson has averaged 17.8 yards per catch on 39 receptions, while Adams has averaged 16.3 on 17 catches.
Alabama's Nick Saban is even getting in onthe fun with freak sophomore athlete O.J. Howard lining up at tight end.
“Having a guy like that, really there's a lot of multiples in terms of how you can use him and create problems for the defense to have to adjust to him,” Saban said.
More and more, coaches are seeking tight ends with receiver skills, but who like to block. Some players are noticing that that quality makes them even more dangerous.
“It definitely intrigues not only me but people around me, my colleagues I guess, my fellow tight ends,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. “It's a lot more fun to be integrated in an offense and be moved around a lot. I think it definitely throws defenses off, not knowing where exactly you're going to line up a linebacker or a safety on them or what the offense is going to do. I'm definitely noticing that a little bit more.”
Today we have the lists for the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end, and the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the top center.
The SEC well represented on both lists, with seven players on the Mackey list and 11 on the Rimington. Here is a rundown:
Rory Anderson, South Carolina
Evan Engram, Ole Miss
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
O.J. Howard, Alabama
Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
Jay Rome, Georgia
C.J. Uzomah, Auburn
David Andrews, Georgia
Evan Boehm, Missouri
Dillon Day, Mississippi State
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Max Garcia, Florida
Ryan Kelly, Alabama
Mike Matthews, Texas A&M
Elliott Porter, LSU
Jon Toth, Kentucky
Joe Townsend, Vanderbilt
Cody Waldrop, South Carolina
2. Hunter Henry, So., Arkansas: Even without any consistency at quarterback, Henry emerged as one of the most promising young tight ends in the country as a true freshman last year, a pass-catcher who wasn't afraid to go over the middle. He finished with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns, and this year coaches are expecting even more.
3. Evan Engram, So., Ole Miss: Injuries clouded an otherwise eye-opening rookie campaign. He started last season on a tear with 20 catches and four touchdowns through seven games and then missed the final five games of the regular season. If he has a clean bill of health, he’s the type of hybrid receiver-tight end who can flourish in Hugh Freeze’s offense and complement Laquon Treadwell on the outside.
4. Jake McGee, Sr., Florida: The Gators' outlook at tight end went from bleak to rosy in one stroke when McGee transferred from Virginia, where he was the Cavs' leading receiver last season. At 6-6, 255, he gives quarterback Jeff Driskel a veteran safety net he can turn to in a pinch. Last season at UVA, McGee got a first down or touchdown on 26 of his 43 receptions.
5. Malcolm Johnson, Sr., Mississippi State: When he arrived in Starkville, Johnson was a three-star wide receiver who weighed only 200 pounds. Now, four years later, he’s 231 pounds and considered one of the better tight ends in the conference. He not only has evolved into a tight end, he ha become more productive every year. He had his best season yet last year with 30 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns.
6. Rory Anderson, Sr., South Carolina: The only question with Anderson is his health. He tore his triceps during spring practice, but the Gamecocks are optimistic that he will be ready for the season. He's a big-play target at tight end who has averaged 17.8 yards per catch during his career and had five touchdowns as a sophomore.
8. Cameron Clear, Sr., Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s wide-open up-tempo offense doesn’t have an extensive history of using tight ends but he hasn’t always had the kind of premier player at the position to utilize. Clear, a massive 6-6, 274-pounder who can move well for his size, gives the Aggies a matchup advantage at the position. He wasn’t used often in his first year on campus, but look for his role to expand this fall under new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
9. Jerell Adams, Jr., South Carolina: With three touchdown catches in 22 career games, Adams is one of those players who could explode this season. He's got great size (6-6, 247) and more than enough speed to get open and make plays down the field.
10. C.J. Uzomah, Sr., Auburn: He might not be the most productive tight end in the SEC, but he’s one of the most clutch. Uzomah had the game-winning touchdown grab against Mississippi State, and he caught another touchdown in the Iron Bowl. As quarterback Nick Marshall evolves as a passer, Uzomah could see his stock rise.
They're up next in our second-year stars series.
Class recap: Bielema's first recruiting class at Arkansas was highlighted by a pair of ESPN 300 gets from South Florida -- running back Alex Collins and offensive lineman Denver Kirkland. The third ESPN 300 prospect in the class was in-state tight end Hunter Henry, who was ranked as the No. 2 tight end in the country. All three earned freshman All-SEC honors and were key contributors. The class was ranked 12th in the SEC and included five four-star prospects.
Recruiting stock: Skipper was a three-star prospect out of Arvada, Colo., and ranked as the No. 53 offensive tackle prospect nationally.
2013 in review: Skipper played in all 12 games and started the final eight at guard. He was named to several freshman All-America teams and was part of an Arkansas offensive line that produced eight 100-yard rushing performances. Skipper was also a force on special teams and set a school-record with three blocked field goals.
2014 potential: With his towering size, Skipper is better suited to play tackle and will move outside as a sophomore to man the Hogs' left tackle spot. He's coming off an excellent spring, and even though Kirkland was the higher-rated prospect a year ago, Skipper is the one who's been pegged as Arkansas' left tackle of the future. Bielema has a long track record of producing quality offensive linemen, and Skipper has the size, physical tools and temperament to be an All-SEC player before he leaves Arkansas.
Also watch out for: Outside linebacker Martrell Spaight and cornerback Carroll Washington are a pair of second-year junior college players who should make much bigger impacts in 2014. Sophomore Brooks Ellis is a thumper at middle linebacker and started the final four games a year ago. Redshirt freshman safety De'Andre Coley had a big spring that was highlighted by more than a few big hits. He has a chance to emerge as one of the Hogs' starting safeties. Kirkland has settled in at right guard, and Henry returns as one of the top tight ends in the league. And even though the Hogs return both Collins and Jonathan Williams at running back, there's a reason sophomore Korliss Marshall is back at running back full time after previously spending some time on defense. Marshall is the fastest and most explosive running back of the bunch and gives the Hogs a true home-run threat.
Patience, Arkansas’ coach understood, would be the key. And nearly 20 years after first laying eyes on Derby the quarterback, he finally has Derby the tight end.
“He didn’t want to do it, and I appreciated his commitment to I’m a quarterback, I’m a quarterback, I’m a quarterback. But on the same account, with three weeks remaining in spring ball, I told him, ‘AJ, just give me two weeks at the tight end position, and if I’m wrong you’ll move back to quarterback and you won’t miss a day, you won’t miss your spot and we’ll act like it never happened.
“He literally changed in the first practice. He made some catches where everybody was saying, ‘Look at this!’ It’s blown me away.”
It was a hard pill to swallow for Derby, who left Iowa after being asked by the staff to try linebacker. He instead transferred to a community college and then followed Bielema to Arkansas last season, where he was the primary backup at quarterback and started his first career game against Rutgers.
Only a few weeks ago he was competing with Brandon Allen for the starting job. But the 6-foot-5, 246-pound senior soon saw the writing on the wall. Allen quickly took control of the offense, showing better arm strength and poise than a season ago. Rafe Peavey, a highly recruited early enrollee freshman, wasn’t going to be moved from quarterback, either.
It was only a matter of time before Bielema came around again asking about a position change. But this time it felt different.
“I was ready to help the team win and get on the field,” Derby said. “I came in to a very good group of tight ends and I’m ready to compete with those guys.
“Coach left it up to me. It was my decision. But I wanted to help the team win as best I can, and I think being a leader is one of those things I can help with.”
As it turns out, both Derby and Bielema’s instincts were right. In full shoulder pads with his hand in the dirt, the lanky passer transformed from the first practice he trotted out to tight end. His knowledge as a quarterback has served him well, but so has his athleticism. At a scrimmage last weekend he made a one-handed touchdown reception and was immediately bombarded by his teammates in celebration.
“The adjustment has gone really well,” Derby said. “Being a quarterback, I already knew what everyone is supposed to do. So the passing game has been easy. The big adjustment was the running game and getting my footwork down.”
For now, Derby isn’t putting too much pressure on himself. When asked if he expected to be a major part of the offense, he said he wasn’t looking at it that way. In typical coachspeak, he said he wanted to take it one day at a time. And considering the sudden change of direction in his career, who can blame him?
But his actual coach wasn’t so reserved. Bielema is already turning NFL scouts on to his new tight end.
“I truly think he’s going to be rewarded,” Bielema said of the position change, “and not just for the next several months. He’s shown and showcased some things. I’ve already inquired to some of my guys in the profession that, ‘Look, you need to talk to this guy about representing him at the next level.’ The scouts as they come in are going to be impressed with what he’s doing.
“He’s a freak show. I’ve had this experience before,” Bielema continued, citing Travis Beckum and Dallas Clark, both of whom he coached and had change positions to tight end, where they went on to have NFL careers. “I’ve seen this rodeo before. He’s got the potential for some serious rewards down the line.
“He will put on 10 pounds, become faster, become stronger, become more athletic over the course of the next eight weeks. He’ll be a 250-255 pound tight end in the fall that can catch two-hands, one-hand, behind the back, you name it. He’s very, very gifted.”
Paired with sophomores Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle, Derby could form a formidable triumvirate of tight ends at Arkansas.
The offense, which has been lacking in terms of playmakers in the passing game, could use all the help it can get.
“We really felt when we have one tight end, that’s great,” Bielema said. “But when you have two or three tight ends who can play on a championship level, we’ve got a good thing. Last year, all we had was Hunter. People could zone in on him, key in on him and take him out of the game. Now not only do you have the emergence of AJ and Hunter, but Jeremy Sprinkle has had a good spring.
“When you have one tight end, that’s one thing. But when you have two that can vertically challenge a defense, you’ve got something special.”
Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.
This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.
“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”
Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.
“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."
Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.
With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.
Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.
Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.
Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.
Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.
Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.
LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.
Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.
Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.
Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.
Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.
Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.
Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.
Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
“It’s always a little crazy, it just depends what kind of crazy,” Bielema said of the road to spring practice. “But it’s good. I’m excited. I know our kids are.
“A year ago at this time, we were getting to know these kids, trying to know their names. ... Now a year into it we have 88 kids who are going to partake in practice, and 84 of them you’ve seen before.”
Bielema and the Razorbacks are putting last season’s 3-9 finish behind them. In December, the team watched the SEC championship game and the second-year coach asked his players why they couldn't be there in 2014. Auburn and Missouri combined for two SEC wins in 2012 and now they were playing in Atlanta. Only a month earlier, Arkansas threatened a fourth-quarter comeback against Auburn, falling short despite getting almost 200 combined rushing yards from Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
“I really wanted to challenge them that it’s not one but two teams that decided to make a stand,” Bielema said. “And to do that, you need to change your actions. I knew they were going to work hard, they were going to listen, they were going to try and do the things we asked them to do. But maybe off the field they needed to dedicate themselves."
The results, Bielema said, have been positive. He has seen a number of players change physically since then, pointing out Williams in particular. The rising junior has put on 15 pounds and “is actually faster and more limber” than he was before, according to his coach.
Collins, who ran for 1,026 yards as a freshman last season, and Williams will once again make up Arkansas’ tandem at tailback. Fellow tailback Kody Walker will play much more at fullback this spring, switching back and forth between the two positions much like Kiero Small did last season.
With Hunter Henry back at tight end, there’s a good nucleus to build around on offense. Henry had his highs and lows last season, said Bielema, who is hoping for more consistency from his standout freshman. What he’s seen from Henry this offseason has been promising.
“He’s bigger. He’s faster. He’s stronger,” Bielema said. “I think he understands what it means to play in the SEC in an eight-game schedule, and hopefully beyond that.”
For Arkansas to go “beyond that” -- as in, the conference championship or a bowl game -- other players need to step up.
The defense got a boost from the return of defensive end Trey Flowers, who was second-team All-SEC last season. New defensive line coach Rory Segrest will “allow him to play faster and a little more aggressive,” Bielema said. And with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith in place, expect a slightly different look from the defense as a whole.
““If you’re inside the huddle, you’ll hear a lot of things change," Bielema said. "We’re going to try and simplify it for our players and get them lined up quickly and put them in a position to play aggressively.”
We'll let him work through the process, feed him as much as he can be fed and see where he can go with it. He's a guy that if he can play we will. If not we'll give him a redshirt year.” Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema on early enrollee quarterback Rafe Peavey.
Despite its 12th-place SEC finish in points per game allowed last season, the biggest question facing the Razorbacks isn’t defense. Instead, it’s who will start under center.
Brandon Allen started 11 games as a sophomore, ending the season 13th on the SEC leaderboard for passing yards per game (141.1). His double-digit interceptions (10) were the most troubling, though.
Bielema said he wants competition at quarterback this spring, all the while acknowledging that Allen has “gotten stronger” and is the favorite to win the job.
“In theory, the first time we yell out for the ones, he’s going to step out there,” Bielema said. “But ... there will be other guys who get opportunity. Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.
“If it’s B.A., that’s great. If it’s not, hopefully that next person is ready.”
Watch out for Rafe Peavey. The four-star prospect enrolled in January and has the tools to push Allen. Bielema likes Peavey's talent and “football junkie” attitude, but Peavey is still just a freshman.
“We’ll let him work through the process, feed him as much as he can be fed and see where he can go with it,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that if he can play, we will. If not, we’ll give him a redshirt year.”
Peavey was just one of a handful of freshmen to enroll early, the four unknowns of the 88 players Bielema referred to earlier on the phone. When Bielema spoke to the Razorback Club that night, much of the talk surrounded recruiting, and with good reason. Approaching the second season of his tenure at Arkansas, Bielema is slowly putting his imprint on the program with the way he brings in players and the changes in attitude on the roster as a whole.
When Arkansas opens camp on Sunday, his message will be much as it was Wednesday night. The record is wiped clean, he’ll say. It’s time to launch forward.
“Don’t worry about what happened yesterday and focus on getting great today. At the end of this stretch we’ll all be better," he said. "We’ll take where we’re at, take all the things that were positive and all the things that were negative, evaluate it and move into the next phase.”
For our all-underclassmen team, we decided to use players who are true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or true sophomores. That means Johnny Manziel, a redshirt sophomore, wasn't eligible. I mean he can't make every list!
The criteria for our other lists once again apply. We're basing things on the season they had in 2013, not who will be the better draft prospect in the future.
Here's what we came up with:
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
RB: Todd Gurley, Georgia
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
WR: Amari Cooper, Alabama
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Jerald Hawkins, LSU
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
C: Evan Boehm, Missouri
AP: Mike Davis, South Carolina
DL: Carl Lawson, Auburn
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Dante Fowler, Jr., Florida
DL: Chris Jones, Miss. State
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Rashard Robinson, LSU
DB: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Georgia
DB: Landon Collins, Alabama
PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
RS: Trey Williams, Texas A&M
QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia
DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State
PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama
The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
DL: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
PK: Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
This was the team he wants to build in Fayetteville: big, talented, determined. Each movement had a purpose. Each drill was defined. The organization of it all is something. When Alabama takes the field, it oozes professionalism. There's no wasted movement, no amount of time unspent. Nick Saban runs a business and the return, more often than not, has yielded championships.
All Bielema could do was watch. There wasn't a call he could have made to change the outcome of the game. He stayed committed to the run with 31 carries to his top two tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- but neither broke the 100-yard mark and only four times did they rush the ball for 10 or more yards. When Brandon Allen did get a chance to throw the ball he had very little success, completing 7 of 25 passes for 91 yards and no touchdowns. His longest completion -- a 25-yard pass to Hunter Henry -- was followed up by an interception on the very next play. In fact, it was the very same play thrown to the very same receiver, only flipped and run out of shotgun instead of under center.
"Obviously, this is getting a little old," Bielema said, the first words of his postgame news conference ringing true on the heels of a 52-7 beat down against South Carolina a week earlier. "Nothing we did out there can give us any indication that the things we need to do are that far away. It's a long way to go. We are at a point where we have to look at ourselves offensively, defensively and special teams, all the things we are asking our kids to do."
The frustration in Bielema's voice was obvious. He came to Arkansas from Wisconsin hoping to compete sooner. But it was the same tune we heard less than a week earlier. Heading into the game, he sounded dejected. He sat at his Monday news conference, the steam of another warm cup of coffee rising near his face as he talked about how difficult the previous game's film was to get through. "I want to win now," he told reporters. "I want to win as soon as possible." But he didn't want to be a "Debbie Downer." He said that expecting history to repeat itself was an "easy, simple way of thinking."
"If you want to get out of this doldrum, if you want to move forward as a person, you take pride in what just happened."
Pride, though, seemed absent following the loss on the road to Alabama. There wasn't much for Bielema to rally around. His offense didn't have a positive play until 4:22 in the first quarter. His defense barely had a chance. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, who entered the game with 10 combined sacks, had none against the Alabama offensive line. Neither had a quarterback hurry. Alabama had two running backs gain more than 100 yards and neither was named T.J. Yeldon.
“Against Alabama, Arkansas showed its youth as much as its lack of talent. The Razorbacks, who haven't finished with a top-15 recruiting class once since 2006, had more first-year starters and underclassmen on the field Saturday than most teams in the SEC. Two of its offensive linemen were true freshmen. Its brightest young star on defense, defensive lineman Darius Philon, was a redshirt freshman Alabama tried to grayshirt coming out of high school.
You've got to look toward the future. It's tough right now but we've got to keep working toward the future.” Running back Jonathan Williams on Arkansas' five-game losing streak.
"You've got to look toward the future," Williams said. "It's tough right now but we've got to keep working toward the future."
What that future is might be in doubt. For now, Arkansas is two games under .500 and winless in the SEC. Reaching a bowl game is unlikely. An infusion of young talent is desperately needed. Bielema's best player, center Travis Swanson, will be gone after the season, as will his best player on defense, Smith. Collins, who ranks in the top 20 nationally in rushing as a freshman, is someone to build around, but he can't do it alone.
"It's to that point where you have to understand where we are going with the guys that survive this," Bielema said. "The guys that move forward with us will be rewarded. I don't know if it is going to come the next game or if it will be in the next month from now, or a year from now, but it's going to take a leap of faith."
On Saturday, Bielema saw in person just how far that leap from rebuilding a program to playing competitive football will be.
From his spot at midfield before the game, he was only a few yards away from touching the finished product: Alabama, a program running on all cylinders. He took another sip of coffee and recorded another mental note, building on the blueprint in his head. When he finally turned around to see his own team, the distance to completion must have felt like miles away.
11:03 2nd Qtr Illinois 9 Louisiana Tech 14 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State