11 Dec

Why Hunter Henry Resembles Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten & Rob Gronkowski

hunter henry

Before Hunter Henry began his first fall camp at the University of Arkansas in 2013, his high school coach was already confident where he would end up next. “I told everybody this kid is going to be an NFL player,” Pulaski Academy head coach Kevin Kelley says. “That’s how sure I was about him because he really does have everything.”

For four years, Kelley had firsthand seen the physical gifts the 6’5”, 255-pound Henry brought to the gridiron. He’d of course seen what was obvious to outside observers — that Henry had a rare combination of size, speed and catching ability. But also knew what wasn’t readily observable to those watching Hunter Henry’s highlight clips. His young superstar possessed an even more rare combination of humility and willingness to work hard even as the public’s praise started pouring in.

Fast forward to now, the end of Henry’s junior season, and Kelley’s prediction looks spot on. Not only has the Little Rock native developed into a first team All-American, but all season long many NFL draftniks have also rated him as the nation’s top pro prospect at his position.

 

Barring injury, Henry has proven he will be an NFL player. That’s essentially settled. So, let’s up the ante: I asked Kelley how confident he is, at this point, that his prized pupil will develop into an All-Pro caliber NFL player.

“You know I really think he’s one of those guys. I hate to say it, because I don’t want to put pressure on him. I don’t think this will. I think he truly is the Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski type of guy. I really think he’s that type of guy.”

That would be three-time Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham, three-time Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski and ten-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten we’re talking about here. These stars who define what the modern prototypical NFL tight end looks like. Interestingly, none of them went in the first round of the NFL Draft. Gronkowski went in the second round, and the other two went in the third.

Plus, none of trio played more than three years of college football.

Will Hunter Henry do the same, deciding to leave after three years or will he stay for a final season in 2016?

Kelley chimed in on that, too. For that insight and more relating to Henry,  sign up for my BestOfArkansasSports.com newsletter below. I’ll send you email notifications of future posts from this site, and excerpts from my interview with Kelley. They include more about what makes Henry special and Kelley’s futile attempt to play the big man at quarterback.

29 Aug

Link to Friday’s Pualski Academy vs Chaminade game in first Arkansas/California showdown

UPDATE: Two late fourth-quarter turnovers doomed PA, leading to a 49-39 loss. Massively entertaining game to watch, though.

Central Arkansas prep powerhouse Pulaski Academy files to California to take on LA-area powerhouse weChaminade on Friday. By my cursory recon, this is the first time an Arkansas prep football team has played a California prep football team. It will be streamed live at 10 p.m. on Friday, August 31 here.

Curious as to the farthest an Arkansas prep team has traveled for football before this game? My evidence points to Springdale High, which lost 3-49 to an Ohio team in 2006, and Little Rock Central, which played quite a few Kentucky teams in the 1950s.

PS – Just saw this on PA’s Twitter feed: PA/Chaminade game watch party tonight at 10pm at Jim’s Razorback Pizza.  16101 Cantrell Rd, Little Rock, Arkansas 72223-4565

PSS – Local prep football guru Robert Yates has led me down the path to enlightenment. He recalls in 1991, Springdale High traveled to Hawaii, where it lost to St. Louis Honolulu 14-27. That trip sets the mark for the farthest an Arky team has ventured out of its own backyard.

It’s a record that should last some time, I imagine, until something like this happens.

25 Apr

Joe Adams, Jake Bequette, D.J. Williams: Trendsetters?

For some private schools like Pulaski Academy, winning state titles is no longer a shock. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

For decades the best players in central Arkansas came from the area’s biggest public schools. What’s now known as Little Rock Central High, for instance, has produced at least eight NFL players, which is the most of any school in Pulaski, Lonoke, Faulkner or Saline counties. Next in line is Little Rock Hall High, which has produced four NFL alumni. Three other schools have produced three alumni each: Lonoke High, what’s now called North Little Rock High School and Little Rock Parkview High.

Jefferson Prep, a new-defunct college preparatory school won a Class A state title  in 1981. That’s the year that signaled private high schools in Arkansas had arrived as a collective power. Generally, though, such domination has been relegated to the 5A classification and below levels. Plenty college-level players have come from these schools but it seemed public schools still had cornered the market on NFL-caliber players.

That is changing – and fast. As far as I can tell, after poring through this, the first NFL player from an Arkansas private school was Jeb Huckeba, a 2001 graduate of Searcy’s Harding Academy. In 2009, Johnathan Luigs of Pulaski Academy became the second, and last year D.J. Williams of Central Arkansas Christian became the third.

That number could double soon if all three of the following Razorbacks are taken in the NFL Draft this Thursday through Saturday: Jake Bequette (Catholic), Joe Adams (CAC) and Broderick Green (Pulaski Academy). Looking ahead, other potential pro players who have attended Arkansas private schools include Michael Dyer (Little Rock Christian), Kiehl Frazier (Shiloh Christian) and Hunter Henry (Pulaski Academy). This trend seems to be a logical outgrowth of the multiple state football titles private schools have racked up in the last 15 years. Success breeds success, and the more a program develops a reputation for developing elite players, the more young high school players want to go there.

In 2008, Robert Yates of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette explored some of the tension developing between the state’s public and private schools. The longtime prep football writer wrote some private schools are accused of “advantages – perceived or real – that include no attendance boundaries, screening potential students, offering financial aid, higher participation and flat-out recruiting.”

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05 Apr

Bobby Petrino, Brain Damage and America’s Most Unorthodox Football Coach

When it came to practicing motorcycle safety, this pass-happy guru totally erred it out. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

It doesn’t seem a Sunday night motorcycle crash has altered the M.O. of Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. Although confined to his hospital room on Monday night, he still reviewed paperwork from a recent spring practice. By the next morning, he was watching practice live, four broken ribs, cracked vertebra, sprained neck and pain meds be damned. A few hours after that, he fielded questions from the press and even cracked a joke about the extent of his injuries: “Yeah, I don’t think I have any brain damage, but that’s yet to be seen. If I start not punting at all in the games or something, then we’ve got a problem.”

Petrino may have been joking, but I’m pretty sure one person not laughing was the coach of a private high school school only two and half hours from Fayetteville who has built a national reputation by refusing to punt among other unorthodox strategies. Kevin Kelley believes punting on fourth down is nearly always a bad idea, even when pinned deep in one’s own territory with 20 yards to go. Economists say the numbers back Kelley, who has won multiple state championships with Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy while putting up absurdly proficient offensive statistics.

While Kelley’s football philosophy has been much trumpeted by media – Time voted it the 33rd-best invention of 2009 – actual football coaches haven’t followed suit. Although some college coaches have made pilgrimages to Kelley’s office to learn his secrets, none seem to have incorporated his strategies into their own playbooks. Former Texas Tech Mike Leach might have been the college coach most publicly open to Kelley’s ideas, according to this Associated Press interview, but he was fired before he could implement them. Leach now coaches at Washington State University and may become the first major college coach to deliberately use Kelley’s methods.

Why do you think college coaches haven’t already tried Pulaski Academy’s system? Despite a wealth of data confirming its superiority, are coaches on the whole still creatures of habit who put more stock in intuition than freakonomics? On the whole, I think adopting such a new-fangled approach  just seems too risky for multimillionaire coaches with more to lose than a high school P.E. teacher coaching on the side. Risk aversion as a rationale doesn’t stick in Petrino’s case, though. He had plenty more to lose Sunday evening when he got on his motorcycle without a helmet [but with a 25-year-old hottie].

01 Feb

Why if Fredi Knighten and Michael Dyer Risk It, They May Just Get that Biscuit for ASU

This guy was so good there's never not a good time to talk about him.

Little Rock Central hasn’t had an All-America caliber football player in decades, but that sure doesn’t mean the neighborhood cupboard’s bare. Two speedsters who have recently grown up in an area a few blocks southwest of the downtown high school both merited Parade All-America honors as seniors: Darren McFadden (who attended what is now Maumelle High School) and Fredi Knighten of Pulaski Academy. No, they didn’t know each other – not like McFadden befriended another high profile private school star soon to be Knighten’s teammate.

But Fredi was certainly aware of the McFaddens, who lived three blocks away from the home into which his mother moved when he started middle school. On many evenings, he recalls hearing stereos booming from McFadden’s car as it rumbled down his street. Of course, McFadden was also making all kinds of noise in Fayetteville, where he solidified his place as the best Razorback running back of all time with consecutive Heisman runner-up finishes.

It’s yet to be seen whether Knighten, a quarterback, can translate his own outstanding prep success to the college level. But if he does, it will likely be to the Razorbacks’ recruiting detriment in central Arkansas. Arkansas State now has three new inroads into central Arkansas it didn’t have during its record-setting 2010 season – Gus Malzahn, a longtime Arkansas high school coach, along with Michael Dyer and Knighten, the area’s last two Parade All-Americans. If ASU continues to build on its recent success, Jonesboro can’t help but become a hotter destination for central Arkansas high school players. A Little Rock native like Knighten, or Dyer, throwing up All-American-type numbers while at ASU would likely lavish unprecedented amounts of media attention on the Red Wolves program.

At the same time, it’s important to note as a Top 5 team the Razorbacks are also becoming a hotter name, not just at home but everywhere around the nation. Arkansas no longer needs to rely on nabbing every 5-star recruit that comes out of central Arkansas (or Springfield, Mo., for that matter). Sure,  Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock’s star running back, recently said “aye” to Alabama. But with the wide net Petrino and his coaches are casting over the nation – especially Western states – that loss doesn’t hurt the program like it would have in the Houston Nutt years.

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14 Dec

Pulaski Academy vs. Gus Malzahn’s best high school team & 2010 Shiloh Christian

[Go to bottom of post for more on Malzahn’s 2005 Springdale team]

None of Pulaski Academy’s 14 wins this season came down to the wire. Votes for season-ending rankings, however, proved a different matter altogether. As expected, there is a severe rift in public opinion concerning Arkansas’ best overall high school football team this season.

On one hand, the state’s largest newspaper deemed P.A. the best team, followed by Fayetteville, then Bentonville. Central Arkansas-based sportswriter Robert Yates constructed these Democrat-Gazette’s rankings. Rivals.com’s national prep sportswriter Dallas Jackson also deemed P.A. as the state’s best, again followed by Fayetteville and Bentonville.

The Arkansas arm of national prep sports outlet VYPE, meanwhile, conducted a poll with Arkansas prep football coaches. Fayetteville won this poll, with P.A. and Bentonville trailing. Finally, about a dozen Associated Press members released their poll Monday. Their rankings mirror VYPE’s.

That the 4A Bruins didn’t top the Associated Press poll isn’t a surprise.  In fact, no team of a similar classification (4th-largest) has ever finished first in the state’s final A.P. poll. Only two teams – 1964 Conway and 1987 Arkadelphia –  have finished atop that final poll. Both teams were in the second-largest classification at the time.

Hunter Henry is one of P.A.'s several future Division I players - possibly seven or more. Is that much talent enough to beat powerhouse 7A squads?

This is according to the Almanac of Arkansas High School Football, by longtime Arkansas sportswriter Leland Barclay.  Barclay, conveniently enough, also happens to be one of the Associated Press members whose votes comprise the poll.  For Barclay, 7A teams – even those with multiple losses – are nearly always better than lower classification teams:

“Schools from the state’s largest classification will always get the nod as the overall final No. 1 team in the state because as the state champion that team had to compete and excel against the best teams in the state over an 11-week stretch. Schools from the other classifications don’t do that…”

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12 Dec

Pulaski Academy coach Kevin Kelley discusses hypothetical overall state football playoffs

Pulaski Academy football coach Kevin Kelley doesn’t like his players to wait around long before a game.

To Kelley, extra time on the field doesn’t help his kids play better. In fact, it can make the experience less enjoyable. “Most teams warm up for an hour, or an hour and fifteen minutes before a game,” he says. “We try to get to games 25 minutes before kickoff because we don’t want our kids sitting and getting stressed out and things like that.”

Instead, he tries to take his players minds off the game at hand. They’ll grab a bite to eat, or catch a movie. Which was the idea a couple weeks ago before Pulaski Academy’s state playoff semifinal at its west Little Rock campus. The Bruins planned to see Immortals, a rah-rah take on a bloodthirsty army’s quest in mythic ancient Greece. Instead, because of a time mix-up, they got part one of  The Twlight Saga: Breaking Dawn.

“We thought Twilight was going to be all about vampires, and it turned out to be a love story,” Kelley recalls. “That was a miserable movie for teenage boys to see. They all hated it. But we had fun talking about it, so it worked.”

A lot has worked for Pulaski Academy this fall.

In the semifinal, the Bruins beat Pine Bluff Dollarway 51-32. On Saturday, the Bruins (14-0) won the 4A state title by defeating Malvern 63-28. In both games, the Bruins didn’t wait long to strike, outscoring their competition by a total of 87-13 in the first halves.

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10 Dec

Can Malvern close the curtains on PA’s “Greatest Show on Turf”?

Anything’s possible, but this is highly unlikely.

Heading into Saturday’s 5A state title game, the Pulaski Academy Bruins are simply one of the greatest offensive machines this state has seen.  “The Bruins average 534.2 total yards and 50.6 points per game, figures that likely would be even higher if their starters weren’t pulled at halftime in many games,” Robert Yates wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The Bruins have outscored opponents 534-126 in the first half and its starters have played in the fourth quarter in just two games.”

And this year, with the help of numerous future D1 players, their defense has been pretty top-notch, too.

Here’s a taste of what Malvern has to stop:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBrfUju5nSg&w=420&h=315]

As you can see, stopping the Bruins will be a monumental task. Malvern itself knows this firsthand, after playing P.A. on Oct. 21. The Leopards lost 47-16 on the road.

The above video isn’t mean to target or disparage Dollarway in any way. I only meant to showcase the mind-meltingly efficient blitzgrieg nature of the Bruins’ attack. It’s an attack HBO will soon feature on national television, and one headed by possibly the greatest dual-threat quarterback in the state’s history. Senior quarterback Fredi Knighten, who has completed 240 of 328 passes for 4,239 yards and 63 touchdowns this season. Knighten has also rushed 93 times for 766 yards and 13 touchdowns, according to the Democrat-Gazette.

No matter what happens  against Malvern, this P.A. team’s numbers so far this season will be hard to topple for any future juggernaut.

Oh, and here’s some of the players who feature prominently in the video:

#1 L.J. Wallace

#5 Jack Snider

#7 Fredi Knighten

#9 Kendall Bruce

#16 Aum’Arie Wallace

#22 Cody Adcock

#82 Hunter Henry

03 Dec

Pulaski Academy ignites “Greatest Show on Turf” in front of HBO cameras

Quick notes from Pulaski Academy’s 51-32 win over Dollarway on Friday night:

Five HBO crew members were prowling the sideline during this thing, soaking up every last cinematic morsel for a future “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” episode exploring PA coach Kevin Kelley’s innovative approach to the game.

Kelley had already earned a national reputation as a relentlessly rational coach who almost always goes for it on fourth down instead of  punting and declines to attempt punt returns because he deems the odds unfavorable to this team. Oh, and he onside kicks after nearly every score, even against schools roughly five times larger.

While PA has won plenty championships in its 40-year history, it’s never had a season quite this dominating: It is a mild shock if their starters play into the second half. On the cusp of their first undefeated season, the Bruins were at it again on Friday night, racking up 356 passing yards and 156 rushing yards for a 44-6 lead  – in the first half.

Here are some highlights:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlG2FLZKONE&w=560&h=315]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW1pWNVwtE0&w=560&h=315]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6PRsKFJ7Q0&w=560&h=315]