It has been three years since the Razorbacks were last represented on any of ESPN’s annual “Position U” lists, but this year’s update should provide a glimmer of hope for Arkansas football fans.
Although his team was still nowhere to be found, Sam Pittman did bring in the man in charge of the fourth-best “Tight End U” for the past decade to join his coaching staff this offseason.
Morgan Turner was the tight ends coach at Stanford from 2013-22 before leaving the West Coast and coming to Arkansas as the replacement for Dowell Loggains, who was hired as South Carolina’s offensive coordinator.
Under his leadership, the Cardinals were one of the premier programs in the country when it came to the position. They sent four tight ends to the NFL over that span and that doesn’t include unanimous All-American Zach Ertz from when he was an offensive assistant from 2011-12.
Those draft selections, all-conference and All-America honors, and NFL success within five years of entering the league — all since 1998 — are part of the formula ESPN uses to determine its Position U rankings.
Arkansas once found itself inside the top 10 at running back, but fell out of that ranking in 2021. Stanford, meanwhile, checks in at No. 4 at tight end, trailing only Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame and Iowa.
Needless to say, Turner has a knack for recruiting and developing tight ends — a skill that likely attracted Pittman to him in the first place, especially considering the Razorbacks’ struggles at the position in recent years.
Now, on the eve of fall camp, Arkansas’ tight ends are trending up, but exactly what they do in 2023 remains one of the bigger uncertainties on the team.
“Are we going to be serviceable? Are we going to be pretty good? Are we going to highlight them?” Pittman told reporters Wednesday. “I don’t know what the answer is yet.”
Here’s an in-depth look at the position…
New Tight Ends for Arkansas Football
The secondary and defensive tackle certainly have an argument, but perhaps no position will look more different in fall camp compared to spring ball than tight end.
With Trey Knox hitting the transfer portal, Hudson Henry deciding to move on from football and already being somewhat light on numbers, Sam Pittman knew he had work to do at tight end this offseason.
Arkansas addressed that issue by signing two blue-chip recruits and landing a pair of transfers. Three of those four were summer enrollees and will be practicing with the Razorbacks for the first time this fall.
Even some of the guys who were here in the spring greatly benefited from the summer workout period — but more on them later.
“Tight end will probably be one of the biggest things that happened from spring ball to now,” Pittman said. “Not only with the guys that were brought in but the development of guys over the summertime.”
After missing out on a couple of potential midyear enrollees, the Razorbacks ended up with the fifth-best tight end in the transfer portal, according to On3, when they landed Var’keyes Gumms. It wasn’t without drama, though, as he briefly de-committed before reaffirming his pledge.
Regardless of how it played out, he was a huge addition for Arkansas. Gumms is coming off a redshirt freshman campaign in which he caught 34 passes for 458 yards and five touchdowns, earning him second-team Freshman All-America accolades from The Athletic.
“He’s very fast and can run,” Pittman said. “Physical guy. He can do anything — he can run, catch, block. … Gumms is a guy that he looks like he’s played college ball before when he goes out there and he’s running around.”
In somewhat of a surprising move, Gumms wasn’t the only transfer tight end the Razorbacks landed. They also brought in Francis Sherman from Louisville.
On the surface, it seems like a perplexing pickup because Sherman is a former walk-on who has a whopping four career receptions in three seasons of college football. However, Pittman confirmed that he isn’t expected to be a force in the passing game.
“To be honest with you, Francis, we got because we needed an in-line blocker,” Pittman said. “We knew how aggressive he was and things of that nature.”
The other newcomer this summer was Shamar Easter, a heralded in-state recruit from Ashdown. The four-star prospect was actually the Razorbacks’ first commitment in the 2023 class and was ranked as high as No. 170 overall by On3.
Despite being such a big-time recruit, though, it’s unclear how much he’ll play as a true freshman. Not only is he behind from a playbook perspective, but he also didn’t get quite as much time in the strength and conditioning program. He’s listed at just 223 pounds, which is much less than the other five scholarship tight ends, who are all in the 242-250 range.
“I think he’s going to be a really, really good player,” Pittman said. “It’s just we’ll find out how fast he helps the football team.”
Arkansas Tight Ends as a Whole
Those newcomers will double the number of scholarship tight ends Arkansas football has available to practice in fall camp.
The Razorbacks went through spring ball with only three, which was plenty for three units when they worked on one-tight ends sets, but was far from enough when they went to other formations that required multiple tight ends. In 12-personnel sets, the walk-ons got quite a bit of work with the third-team offense — something that shouldn’t happen now.
Nathan Bax is the veteran of the group, as he’s back as a sixth-year super senior in 2023. He isn’t much of a threat in the passing game, but his presence is needed in what is a mostly young room.
The only other scholarship tight end back from last season is Ty Washington, who will be a redshirt freshman. He appeared in four early games last year, mostly on special teams, before opting to redshirt. A rule change by the NCAA allowed Washington to play in the bowl game and maintain that redshirt, though, and he made the most of it, catching a 17-yard touchdown against Kansas in the Liberty Bowl.
Joining Shamar Easter in the 2023 signing class, Luke Hasz was a four-star prospect from Bixby, Okla., who turned down a late push by Alabama to stick with his commitment to Arkansas. He got to campus in January and made an immediate impact, drawing consistent praise from Pittman and playing a lot of first-team reps.
Adjusting to the blocking aspect of the position is probably Hasz’s biggest issue, but he did bulk up to 242 pounds during the offseason. He was listed at 226 in the spring.
Combined with the newcomers, they create a vastly different tight end room than what Pittman had at his disposal the first couple of years he was at the helm. During those years, there was a revolving door at the position, with numerous players giving it a shot — from offensive linemen like Marcus Henderson to linebackers like Levi Draper.
“Boy, they can run, they can catch and they are bigger and more physical than we’ve had at that position,” Pittman said. “Obviously the potential’s there at that position for us to use them. We’d like to because they can run. I believe we’ve got two or three of them that will be matchup problems for defenses if we can get them on the field.”
Scheme Change under Dan Enos
Having more legitimate options at tight end became even more important for Arkansas football when Sam Pittman hired Dan Enos as Kendal Briles’ replacement at offensive coordinator.
He runs a pro-style offense that utilizes tight ends a lot more than what the Razorbacks did the last three years.
“Formationally, we’ll be quite a bit different,” Pittman said. “We were a lot of 11 (personnel) last year — boom, boom, boom, boom, boom because we were playing fast, and we wanted to stay in that. Little bit of varying, slight amount of 20-personnel last year. I think you’ll see the tight ends used a lot more this year than what (they were) before.”
That was on display this spring, when Arkansas opened up practice in 12-personnel — meaning one running back and two tight ends were on the field.
That doesn’t necessarily mean 12-personnel will be the Razorbacks’ base offense, though, as Pittman said establishing physicality early in the spring was a point of emphasis.
“It might also be that we just want to set a tone,” Pittman said. “We didn’t lose every game last year. It felt like it at times. You can’t lose your physicality and at times we did. Probably we wanted as much ‘clang’ as we could get out there on the first play and that’s probably what we did.”
Still, it’s a safe bet that tight ends will be a much bigger factor in Enos’ offense this year than the last few, especially with as much talent Arkansas has in the room now.
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