Ready or not, it is almost time for Arkansas football once again — kind of. Spring ball is set to begin March 9, which marks the unofficial start to Year 4 of the Sam Pittman era.
To help get you acquainted with the 2023 squad, Best of Arkansas Sports will preview the team position-by-position. We’ll take a look at the biggest questions, key players and newcomers that will define the Razorbacks’ upcoming season.
Our series continues with a deep dive on the tight ends…
Biggest Question Facing Arkansas Football at TE
Are the young guys ready to step into big roles?
Nathan Bax is back as a super senior, but outside of him, the Razorbacks have an extremely young and inexperienced group of tight ends for 2023.
Arkansas lost its best player at the position to the transfer portal, as Trey Knox decided to follow former tight ends coach Dowell Loggains to South Carolina. The once-promising career of Hudson Henry is also over, as he decided to move on with life after four seasons.
To make room for the youth movement — which at one point included three incoming freshmen, but Jaden Hamm flipped to Kansas in wake of Loggains’ departure — Erin Outley entered the transfer portal and Collin Sutherland medically retired, each after never playing for the Razorbacks.
That means the youngsters are going to be forced into action immediately, whether they’re ready or not.
Even though he’s a redshirt freshman, Ty Washington at least has some playing experience because of the NCAA four-game redshirt rule — which, to his benefit, was tweaked this year to allow the bowl game not to count toward that total. He took advantage of the opportunity by catching his first career pass in the Liberty Bowl: a 17-yard touchdown.
The coaching staff has been really high on Washington and he certainly looks the part. Perhaps Bax has a Blake Kern-like breakout in his final year, but considering he hasn’t been much of a threat in the passing game and the Razorbacks haven’t added any tight ends from the portal, it’s probably a safe bet that they are hoping Washington can evolve into a starter.
Of course, how quickly true freshmen Luke Hasz and Shamar Easter — a pair of four-star tight ends — adjust to the college game could also have a say in that. Both are immensely talented, but can they come in and be “the guy” right out of the gate? Hasz probably has the advantage over Easter because he’s already enrolled and will go through spring ball.
The Veteran: Nathan Bax
One of four returning super seniors for Arkansas football, Nathan Bax began his career as a walk-on transfer from the FCS ranks, coming to Fayetteville from Illinois State before John Ridgeway made the same jump.
He was far less heralded than the big defensive tackle, as his walk-on status would indicate, but Bax still carved out a role for himself on special teams and eventually earned a scholarship.
Although an injury forced him to miss a couple of games, Bax was the No. 2 tight end for the Razorbacks throughout much of 2022. He played 210 offensive snaps and started the Liberty Bowl following Trey Knox’s transfer.
Bax is mostly known for being a blocker, as he’s caught only three passes for 16 yards during his collegiate career, but that was also the reputation of Blake Kern going into his super senior season in 2021. Kern ended up catching 15 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns that year.
However, that was in a completely different offensive system and with far less talent in the tight end room. It is most likely that Bax’s biggest role on the 2023 team is as a veteran leader to the younger players at the position.
Newcomer(s) to Watch: Luke Hasz / Shamar Easter
Is it cheating to put both incoming freshmen in this section? Perhaps, but we make the rules and there’s a very good chance that both of them end up playing quite a bit this year. In fact, they’re both among our top five impact freshmen for the upcoming season.
Shamar Easter has the unique distinction of being the first player to commit in the 2023 class, but also the last to sign, as he waited until traditional National Signing Day to officially ink with Arkansas football.
That is significant because it means he didn’t enroll early, which was never in the cards because he wanted to play basketball his senior year at Ashdown — an in-state program Arkansas fans may recognize because of Montaric Brown and LaDarrius Bishop.
However, even though he won’t get on campus until this summer, Easter’s size, length and athleticism could make up for the lost time and get him on the field early as a true red zone threat.
A somewhat late addition to the class, Luke Hasz originally committed to Oklahoma, but reopened his recruitment following the departure of Lincoln Riley. Given a second chance, Arkansas reeled him in and held on to him despite several schools — including Alabama — trying to flip him.
Hasz was once considered the best or second-best tight end in the class by most recruiting services, but eventually fell to No. 11 in the 247Sports Composite. The drop in the rankings was reminiscent of Hudson Henry, but the fact that Nick Saban personally visited him in the days leading up to the early signing period should soothe the concerns of a similar career outcome.
As mentioned above, the Bixby, Okla., native is already on campus, so he’ll get the benefit of an SEC weight program and spring ball this semester. That could give him the boost needed to immediately factor into the offense as a true freshman.
Arkansas Football 2023 Projected Depth Chart
1. Ty Washington — redshirt freshman
2. Luke Hasz — freshman
3. Shamar Easter — freshman
4. Nathan Bax — sixth-year super senior
The Rest: *Zach Lee (redshirt junior), *Hunter Talley (redshirt freshman), *Maddox Lassiter (freshman)
When the Razorbacks hit the practice field next week, Nathan Bax will undoubtedly trot out with the first-team offense. He is the most experienced tight end on the roster, by a long shot, and that’s typically how Sam Pittman bases the depth chart on Day 1 of spring ball.
However, it would not be surprising at all to see Ty Washington quickly surpass him because he is essentially the same size as Bax, but more athletic and a better receiver. He is currently our favorite to win the starting job come Sept. 2.
As we laid out above, the biggest question will be how quickly Luke Hasz and Shamar Easter can get themselves ready to play in the SEC. They have the talent, especially from a passing game perspective, but can they handle the physicality of the blocking aspect?
Because Hasz will get more time in the weight program, we’re slotting him second for at least the start of the season and perhaps all year, but Easter may have the higher ceiling.
Perhaps it’s unfair to drop Bax all the way down to No. 4 because all he’s done since arriving in Fayetteville is overachieve, but that’s more of a compliment to the other guys Arkansas has brought in than a dig at him.
2023 Arkansas Football Spring Preview Series
Check out some junior year highlights of Shamar Easter:
Check out some senior year highlights of Luke Hasz:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…