- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Arkansas can’t rely solely on the running game again. Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams might be one of the best tandems of running backs in the country, but they can take the offense only so far. Quarterback Brandon Allen and the passing game, which ranked dead last in the conference last season, must pick up the slack. If not, we could see the Razorbacks’ nine-game losing streak continue into this season, beginning with Saturday’s opener against Auburn.
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.
But his production was volatile. Like most freshmen, he struggled with consistency.
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."