FAYETTEVILLE — Following an impressive decade-long run of tight ends that included two Mackey Award winners and five NFL Draft picks, the well has run dry at the position for Arkansas football.
Since Cheyenne O’Grady was dismissed from the team in 2019, the Razorbacks have gotten very little production from its tight ends. In fact, over the last two seasons, Arkansas tight ends have combined for just 75 receptions, 570 yards and six touchdowns.
That is 300 yards fewer than the average of the other 13 SEC teams over that span and a significant drop off from what the Razorbacks averaged over the previous decade. Between 2010-19, Arkansas tight ends grabbed 52.4 receptions for 651.8 yards and 5.5 touchdowns per year.
Not only have the Razorbacks lacked a D.J. Williams, Chris Gragg, Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle or even an O’Grady, but they’ve also been dangerously thin at the position.
During head coach Sam Pittman’s first two seasons, Arkansas resorted to virtually everything short of scouting the intramural fields.
Blayne Toll went back and forth between tight end and defensive end multiple times before transferring, linebacker Levi Draper and wide receiver Koilan Jackson converted to the position before medically retiring, and offensive lineman Marcus Henderson, defensive end Eric Thomas Jr., quarterback Landon Rogers, running back Dominique Johnson and wide receiver Trey Knox each had stints of varying length in the room.
“Nobody knew who Dominique Johnson was until he spent two weeks with the tight ends and we moved him back to running back,” tight ends coach Dowell Loggains said with a smile. “Everyone forgets that he came over with us.”
The move might have provided the motivation Johnson needed to evolve into Arkansas’ starting running back down the stretch last season, while Henderson and Thomas also made their way back to their natural positions. Toll, Draper and Jackson are no longer on the team, while Rogers has since moved to wide receiver.
That leaves just Knox, who the Razorbacks hope can become their next NFL tight end after a strong finish to 2021 and an offseason in which he reshaped his body, as the lone holdover from that tumultuous period at that position.
One player who witnessed all of that change up close and personal was Hudson Henry, who has been a tight end at Arkansas since arriving as a heralded recruit — and younger brother of Hunter Henry — in 2019.
If anyone is qualified to speak on the differences in the tight end room between a couple of years ago and now, it would be the redshirt junior out of Pulaski Academy.
“In all honesty, I think we have the most talented tight end room that we’ve had in a very long time,” Henry said. “I mean, we have a good group of core guys who we can get in there and run a lot of different personnel out of.”
On top of Knox and Henry, the Razorbacks also still have a former walk-on who’s expected to contribute, with Nathan Bax taking over that role from Blake Kern, as well as a heralded freshman in Tyrus Washington.
Throw in two more scholarship players in Collin Sutherland and Erin Outley, as well as a couple of walk-ons, and the tight end room is so crowded that the unfortunate medical retirement of freshman Dax Courtney was just a blip on the radar — opposed to an event that sounded the alarms like it probably would have a year or two ago.
It also helps that the tight ends are coached by Dowell Loggains, a former walk-on quarterback for the Razorbacks who was previously an offensive coordinator in the NFL.
“He’ll point out stuff that I never really realized about football,” Bax said. “He has 17 years of experience in the NFL. He’ll say stuff in meetings where I’m like, ‘I don’t know why I never noticed this.’ It’s those little details he points out that really makes you think during a play.”
Here’s how Best of Arkansas Sports sees the tight end room shaking out over the next few weeks…
1. Trey Knox
The offseason for Trey Knox consisted of eating everything in sight. That included drinking chocolate milk before bed, chugging protein shakes, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and chowing down on a lot of chicken and — his personal favorite — steak and potatoes.
Throw in the work he put in with the strength staff in the weight room and the result is a chiseled 245-pound tight end, which is 18 pounds heavier than he was at the end of last season and 40 pounds heavier than he was just a couple of years ago.
“When you see him, you can tell,” Loggains said. “When he walks through the door, he looks like what a tight end is supposed to look like.”
Having a few extra pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame has helped Knox in his transition to tight end, which began a week into last season, because instead of being asked to block defensive backs, he’s now blocking big defensive ends and linebackers.
Even though his mindset was right before, that was a challenge for Knox from a physical standpoint — which won’t be the case moving forward.
“Blocking success has gone way up,” Pittman said. “Willingness to block has always been there. I mean, he’s always been a willing guy to block. But he’s 245 pounds vs. 212 or 217 or 220, so obviously his physicality, his strength is better.”
Pittman hasn’t been shy about the NFL potential that Knox possesses and noted that he wants to also play on a couple of special teams units this year to further improve his draft stock.
Unlike last season, when their top tight end — Blake Kern — caught just 15 passes for 183 yards and two scores, it sounds like the Razorbacks will have a true weapon at the position in 2022.
“He’s comfortable in the system, so I expect a lot of great things from him in the offense and using him a lot because he’s a weapon,” teammate Jalen Catalon said. “He’s a matchup problem now that’s gotten more acclimated to it. He’s moving fluidly and I’m proud of him for making that transition and keeping a level head and doing it for the best of the team.”
2. Nathan Bax
As a former walk-on athlete himself, tight ends coach Dowell Loggains understands how tough it can be for a walk-on to carve out a role on a team with 85 scholarship players. That’s what made Blake Kern’s story so special, as he started all 13 games last year and half of the games the year before that.
Arkansas has another tight end trying to follow in Kern’s footsteps this year, as Nathan Bax is trying to evolve from a special teams contributor to someone who rotates in on offense the same year he finally earned a scholarship.
“It’s hard to earn a scholarship as a walk-on,” Loggains said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to give the scholarship guys the first look, the second look. When you earn a scholarship, you earn it.”
Bax understood that challenge when he left Illinois State, where he had a scholarship at the FCS level, and began a journey to play at the highest level of college football. He considered Memphis, Kansas State or a return to his home state of Missouri, but ultimately fell in love with Arkansas and joined the Razorbacks as a walk-on in 2019.
“I kind of saw something hidden here that I didn’t really think a lot of people saw,” Bax said. “I thought I was a hidden gem. Just the pride Arkansas has, all they have here is the Hogs and looking from the outside in, I started to realize if I could go somewhere everyone’s going to support you all the time, that’s somewhere I can be because they’re going to lift you up all the time, they’re going to want to make you reach the most potential you have.”
It didn’t take long for Bax to realize the difference between FCS and SEC football, as everyone in the front seven was bigger and better than what he was used to.
However, he stuck with it and is now on the verge of being the Razorbacks’ backup tight end as a fifth-year senior. Bax has taken the majority, if not all, of the second-team snaps in the portions of practice open to the media and showcased some solid hands.
He shares some similar traits with Kern, such as their in-line blocking skills, so Bax said he picked his brain on things the last couple of years and is not trying to mimic his success.
“He has the same makeup,” Loggains said, when asked to compare the two former walk-ons. “He’s dependable, he’s smart, he’s tough, he’s going to do the right thing. He’s a guy that we can trust on and off the field to be an example for the younger guys. That’s the standard.”
3. Tyrus Washington
If you weren’t surprised by his absence in the No. 2 spot, you’re almost certainly shocked not to see Hudson Henry as our third tight end.
However, that is due to the emergence of Tyrus Washington. A high three-star recruit coming out of Georgia, he has the physical tools, intelligence and the “want-to” to be a contributor as a true freshman.
“I think you can split him out a little bit,” Pittman said. “He’s got that kind of speed. I mean, he’s not going to run by a corner probably, but he’s going to run by a nickel, a Sam linebacker, a Will linebacker.”
Washington is also aided by the fact that he has the right mentality for a young player, as he’s always asking questions to the older tight ends and Loggains, both in the meeting room and on the practice field.
“Here’s where we hit on Tyrus: he’s got the right mental makeup,” Loggains said. “He’s a tough, competitive south Georgia kid. Football is very important to him. He has a passion for football. He’s very eager to get on the field any way he can, whether it be special teams (or) tight end.”
As impressive as he’s been during spring drills as an early enrollee and in fall camp, there’s a chance he may hit a wall. Knox knows just how much of a grind it can be, so he said his goal is to help him get through it.
“That boy is going to be a problem,” Knox said. “I’ve tried to just take him under my wing. He’s actually staying at my house right now just because we’re in camp and I want to talk to him and really just try to help him through this whole thing.”
Whether or not Washington ends up ahead of Henry in the pecking order could depend on just how much he pushes Bax for the second spot behind Knox.
If Bax separates himself as the clear-cut No. 2 tight end, there may not be enough reps available to Washington to make it worth burning his redshirt. In that scenario, it makes more sense to give those snaps to Henry.
4. Hudson Henry
Considering his older brother won the Mackey Award and he was a four-star recruit himself, expectations for Hudson Henry coming into college were probably at an unfair level.
He’s played 378 offensive snaps with four starts in his first three years at Arkansas, but he’s yet to live up to the hype that followed him from high school. However, that’s not entirely his fault. Henry has been plagued by injuries that have almost certainly set him back.
That was on display the first day of fall camp, when his asthma acted up and prevented him finishing the practice. Even though Pittman mentioned him second behind Knox following that practice, Henry hasn’t been spotted with the first, second or third units in media viewing periods since Day 1 — but Loggains didn’t sound too alarmed when he met with reporters last week.
“(He’s had) the same response I’d expect from any of our tight ends, and that’s to come in and do your job,” Loggains said. “Football is hard, and everything is earned. We had an issue physically with him that he has overcome and done a nice job.”
Considering the lack of playing time as a heralded recruit, Henry would likely be on portal watch if he was anyone else, but he told reporters that he wasn’t too concerned with personal accolades.
“Coming into camp, I think one of my main things is I wanted to be a team player and I wanted to do whatever I could, whether that’s playing tight end, being a special teams player or being both,” Henry said. “I want to do whatever I can to help the team because I’m an Arkansas guy… I love this state, I love the Razorbacks. I’ve loved them my whole life, so I want to do whatever I can to help us win a championship.”
Henry’s background gives his comments more credibility, as it does for Loggains’ assessment that would otherwise sound like stereotypical coach-speak.
“This kid honestly cares about the team more than himself,” Loggains said. “That doesn’t happen much in this world in this time in the age of instant gratification on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and all that stuff. He legitimately wants to do what is best for the team, be a good teammate and serve in any role he can find that helps the football team.”
Others Tight Ends for the Razorbacks
It is highly unlikely that Arkansas uses more than the four aforementioned tight ends, but they do have a couple more on scholarship with Collin Sutherland and Erin Outley.
Among those two, Outley is probably closer to seeing the field. Pittman said he’s fifth on the depth chart and Loggains said he has a chance to compete even though he’s not currently in the top group of tight ends.
Outley redshirted last season as he recovered from a knee injury suffered in high school. He didn’t even practice with the Razorbacks until midway through the 2021 season and when he did return, he looked more like an offensive lineman than a tight end, but he lost 13 pounds this offseason.
“Now he has a chance, to be honest with you, because he’s in shape, his knee is fine, so he’s got a chance,” Pittman said. “I could see him moving up that chart, because his high school film was really good high school film.”
Arkansas Football: 2022 Tight End Overview
Expected to Contribute
1. Trey Knox — senior
2. Nathan Bax — redshirt senior
3. Tyrus Washington — freshman
4. Hudson Henry — redshirt junior
Not Expected to Play Much
Collin Sutherland — redshirt sophomore
Erin Outley — redshirt freshman
Nathan Johnson — redshirt sophomore (walk-on)
Zach Lee — redshirt sophomore (walk-on)
Hunter Talley — freshman (walk-on)
Check out what TE coach Dowell Loggains, as well as the three veteran tight ends, had to say about the position last week:
See More: Ranking the Room Series
More coverage of Arkansas football in fall camp from BoAS…