FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas’ senior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady is mending from knee surgery earlier this week.
Barry Lunney Jr., who coaches the tight ends, met with the media following Thursday’s practice and talked about how the position is without O’Grady.
“Well, today was, I guess, the second day without him,” Lunney said. “Life goes on, obviously in practice and it’s part of football. Stuff like that happens. We were pleased that it was not an extensive deal and we’re hoping for a swift and fast recovery. I guess that’s the same thing, swift and fast. Does that make it extra fast? That’s what we want.”
A player who has stepped up even before O’Grady’s injury is junior Grayson Gunter.
“Grayson’s had a great camp, best camp since he’s been here,” Lunney said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence and intensity and really very pleased with where he’s at right now.”
Chad Morris said Gunter would probably take the first snap in a game if the Hogs played right now. Lunney talked about that as well.
“I think Coach Morris said it perfectly, it’s all going to depend on what the play is, what our set it is, what we’re doing,” Lunney said. “I view both of those guys as guys that have stepped up. They’re capable. I think Grayson has an edge from his familiarity playing the position.
“Schematically and assignment wise, Chase (Harrell still has those challenges to work through. But, we’re going to work through it and we’re almost through them because he’s so willing. Both of those guys and Blake Kern would play today. Those would be the three main guys right now if we went into a game that would probably play the majority of the snaps.”
What has Gunter done that has impressed you the most?
“Grayson can really really run for being 6-5 and a half, 245 pounds,” Lunney said. “I mean, his foot speed is way above average for the position. That’s the strength, but what he’s doing differently and better than what he’s done in the past, is playing with more grit and more confidence in the run game. He doesn’t block like Austin Cantrell, but they’re all different.
“Grayson’s playing with more grit and resistance in the run game because of his mass, he’s gained some weight in the offseason, he’s been really confident in the run game. It has been noticed by Coach (Dustin) Fry, Coach Morris and the defense, everybody. He’s making a real clear cut attempt to be more physical and that’s all we asked for him.”
Harrell, a senior, moved over from wide receiver and he too is having a nice fall camp. Harrell obviously is still working on improving his blocking.
“Anybody can probably draw the natural conclusion that the passing game comes a lot more natural to him than the run game or pass protection,” Lunney said. “We don’t ask our guys to pass protect a lot, but when we do, it’s going to be important. Really, what it comes down to him, is the familiarity of the schemes. It’s just a little different world.
“The run-game schemes, the protection-game schemes are a little bit of a foreign land to him, as you can imagine. It’s like a foreign language. He’s been talking a certain language his whole career and then we have a little bit different vernacular and it’s taken him a while to catch on to that. Really at the end of the day, blocking – you’ve all heard me say this at some point in time, and I didn’t come up with this – but blocking really comes down to two things: ability and want-to.
“Sure, there’s some technical things in there. That’s my job to provide those. But if you have the ability to block somebody in this league – size, power, foot speed – and then you have the desire, that’s a good combination. He has both of those. I’m not saying he’s going to be a dominant blocker in this league. I’m just saying he’s proven he’s more than willing to do that and when you take that with his ball receiving skills, I think you have a nice little complement there and he’s definitely in the right position.”
Blake Kern is a junior walk-on from Lamar who has continued to work hard and made some huge strides with the program. Kern, 6-4, 256, is known for his blocking and physical play at the position.
“Blake’s been here, a redshirt junior, been here four years now,” Lunney said. “He has steadily earned his stripes over the course of time. He was a high school quarterback. It’s taken him a while to learn the position and play the position, but he’s slowly and surely earned the trust of not only his coaching staff, but his peers. Blake has a role on this team. He’s going to help us. He’s going to help us in special teams and he’s going to help us in some goal-line, short-yardage stuff. He’s probably our most polished and physical blocker at the point of attack. We’ve talked about that at length and he continues to show that, but we’re going to keep pressing him. We need more out of him, but we’re real pleased with where Blake is.”
Kern has improved as a receiver and Lunney said teams can’t just assume he’s in to block and not catch passes.
“For sure,” Lunney said. “We don’t send him out there with boxing gloves on his hands. So he’s more than capable of catching the ball. That’s going to happen at some point because just like you said, he’s going to be our blocker. He’s going to be a point of attack blocker and people are going to know that. So we certainly have to have a guy that can handle the passing game. He can. He’s got good hands. Because of that he might bring some good playmaking ability to us at kind of sneaky times.”
Is he similar to what Austin Cantrell offered at that position as far as being known for his blocking, but could also catch the football?
“That’s applicable,” Lunney said. “He knows our passage system and made some plays in camp already. We want all of our guys to be efficient at all phases: Run game, protection, passing game. The more guys we have efficient at all three the more guys we can play without tipping off our hand.”
Lunney also talked about O’Grady and how he had responded to not being with the first unit a few days earlier in camp.
“I know you guys aren’t out there all the time, so you just draw conclusions on what you gather and what you see and the questions you ask,” Lunney said. “Yeah, I mean, first of camp, he wasn’t working with the 1s all the time. That’s not a ploy. That’s not. We’re going to use the guys that are in the best frame of mind and state of health, the guys that are dialed in and tuned in. We’ve got too much talent in that room to whoever’s out there, not be that guy.
“I’m not saying C.J. hasn’t been that. I’m just saying that when he is all in and he’s dialed in and he’s sharp, we all know what he can do. We’re going to make sure… We all make it about him. Not “we all,” but the media and people want to talk about him from that regard because he’s a proven playmaker, but it’s the same standard for every guy that we have in the room. This is how we’re going to practice, this is how we’re going to be at meetings, this is how we’re going to do that.
“We’re just holding everybody to the same standard and C.J. certainly responded there before he got hurt. He was on the right track and is having a good camp. We just want a consistent camp, a consistent grind every day. He knows this. We’ve talked at length about that and we fully expect when he comes back, that with him having 12 games left his senior year, it’ll be the best 12 weeks that he can make them.”
True freshman Hudson Henry came to Arkansas after the Hogs won a big recruiting battle with Stanford and many others. He missed some time while in concussion protocol, but returned this week.
“He’s been rusty as you would expect,” Lunney said. “He missed several days, an extended period of time and he’s rusty. And you throw in the fact you are new … he hasn’t gone through the phase of knocking off the newness yet.
“Some of these drills and some of these plays are new to him. So we are kind of working through that right now. He’s going to be more than fine. You can tell that already early on with his ability. He’s got a lot of natural ability. He’ll be fine because he has a lot of desire and want-to.”
Senior Hayden Johnson came to Arkansas as a fullback, but has since moved to tight end.
“Hayden is going to help us,” Lunney said. “He’s going to help us on (special) teams and I have him in my room. That’s the doctor. We call him the doctor because he’s going to go to med school one day and he’s going to be a brilliant doctor. He’s a really good football player. He’s going to help us and he has helped us in short yardage and special teams. He brings a lot of value with his leadership. We’re excited about Hayden.”