Analysis: What Arkansas is Getting in Var’Keyes Gumms and Francis Sherman

Going into the spring in Fayetteville, one could probably hear the collective masses calling for portal help at the tight end position. Following the surprise departure of former Razorback tight end Trey Knox, it was only amplified. With Knox headed to Columbia, SC, the remaining production was the equivalent to nearly nothing. A nuke had struck the once prominent Arkansas tight end room. 

One left on scholarship from 2022 was graduate senior Nathan Bax who is not the receiving archetype. The other, Tyrus Washington, still has a lot to prove going into year two after providing in the Liberty Bowl. Between the pair was just four receptions for 33 yards via the 2022 season. As yardage at tight end goes, they accounted for 10.5% from the season prior. 

Walking in the door with a say in all of this was highly recruited freshman Luke Hasz. Garnering plenty of praise from Head Coach Sam Pittman and the like, the year tag by his name still didn’t bring smiles to every face. Despite showing up and showing out all spring, it was clear what was going to be done. With virtually no returning production and a room full of inexperienced receiving tight ends, the reel was cast into the portal. A lot.

Tight ends of fans’ desires and Arkansas’ interest came and went during the first portal cycle. Quite possibly garnering the most smoke was North Texas transfer Jake Roberts. After visits took place, he wound up choosing Baylor which sent the tight end chatter spiraling. 

Having a very notable receiving tight end had been known as a luxury once before and the portal highlighted that feat over and over. With the better of the tight end portal class making moves rather quickly, the latter part of the first window produced slim pickings. It wasn’t worth pursuing. When it felt as if Arkansas may have to bite the bullet and rely on the incoming four-star freshmen, the second window came. Beaming into the portal after denying that he might leave North Texas months prior, Var’Keyes Gumms took center stage. Listed as one of 247 Sports’ top remaining portal players at the time, Arkansas jumped into the running. 

After committing to the Hogs for nine days, Gumms continued to market himself and de-committed for a visit to Cal-Berkeley. As another team that had been raiding the portal, there was legitimate fear that he might wind up gone for good. Arkansas fans were preparing to be hurt once more when Gumms decided Fayetteville was where he wanted to stay for certain. 

Not long after, experienced tight end Francis Sherman popped up on the radar and would join the squad. Coming out of Louisville, he will be reunited with strength coach Ben Sowders. Big Sherman doesn’t carry the star power that Gumms holds, so let’s dive into Gumms – a certain day one contributor.

Var’Keyes Gumms Background

Going back to his playing days at Dekaney high school in Texas, Var’Keyes Gumms was a noted two-sport athlete. As a force on the football field, he also averaged a double-double for their basketball squad his junior year. That was not his destiny, however. Playing in nine games his senior year on the football field, Gumms began attracting some moderate attention. 

Hauling in 33 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns, his recruiting ranking started to reflect his play. Rated as the number 50 tight end by 247 Sports and the number 43 by the 247 Sports Composite, he had his options. Schools that could be considered ‘local’ such as Houston, Tulsa, and Louisiana Tech were all interested in his game, but one offer stood out above the rest. Under coach Ed Orgeron at the time, the LSU Tigers came knocking on his door, but they weren’t allowed in. Staying in state, North Texas would gain his signature.

His freshman year in Denton brought playing time in three games, but nothing more. Being placed in a non-traditional tight end role during his redshirt freshman season had Gumms rocket onto the Conference USA scene. Playing in all 14 games in 2022, he would start just six for the Mean Green. Reflecting his high school numbers, Gumms caught 34 balls for 458 receiving yards – both of which were tight end records at UNT. He would account for five touchdowns on top of the record-setting numbers. 

Despite leading the conference in yards by a tight end, Phil Steele would only select Gumms to Fourth-Team All-CUSA. Meanwhile, other services had Gumms on the Second Team list and coaches had him at the top. Way to go Coaches List. The Second-Team All-Freshman team would also be where Gumms found his name. With all the awards pushed behind him, Jake Roberts leaving UNT, it felt like it was his time to take over under new head coach Eric Morris. Unfortunately for the Mean Green, fate had other ideas. The superb athlete now resides in Fayetteville and is a certified weapon for Dan Enos’ high tight end usage offense. 

Versatile Tight End Built for Enos

Before diving into the p’s and q’s that surround Gumms’ athleticism and potential, this is where his value jumps off the page. Going back to his high school days, he was lined up at multiple spots across the field. Primarily used as an h-back style tight end, that’s where his strengths lie. For those unfamiliar with the h-back position, it is a tight end slotted just behind the outside hip of the offensive tackle. 

Many scenarios that appeared on his highlight tape were very simple swing routes to the opposite of where he lined up. Linebackers were often tasked with covering Gumms as he streaked behind his offensive linemen. Many times they would lose him in the mix and Gumms would then become a catch-and-run receiver. Shifting to his time at North Texas, he was utilized the exact same way. While the short passes were still incorporated, Gumms grew his route tree and began to transition into a vertical threat at tight end. Different kinds of wheel routes and out routes would begin to cause problems for opposing defenses. 

Special occasions both in high school and at UNT had Gumms lineup out at wide receiver as well. While his usage out wide decreased, it still counts toward the knowledge of playing there that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. The lack of play as an in-line tight end does bring about some sense of worry. Knowing Enos’ offense while at Arkansas originally, he leaned heavily upon tight ends that aided a 12 and 13 personnel. His time at Maryland expanded his usage of h-back tight ends that perfectly fit the mold of Var’Keyes, leaving Bax and Sherman to fill the void elsewhere.

Mismatch Heaven

Thus far, all of quarterback KJ Jefferson’s new targets have had the ‘mismatch’ tag placed on them and it’s no different with Gumms. Looking toward his build at tight end it’s nothing overwhelming at 6-3 and 235 pounds. His size alone will cause some issues with boundary safeties and plenty of corners. The real separation comes when he’s lined up against his common opposition – linebackers. 

As mentioned previously, running swing routes from the h-back spot caused problems for linebackers attempting to cover Gumms. It expands further than that. With his route tree growing, he has been asked to break off routes often. For example, running a simple check down out route where he suddenly transitions into a seam route. Linebackers being asked to keep up with the foot speed of Gumms down the field is a totally different animal than a three-yard underneath route. 

A game that comes to mind that truly shows off how difficult he is to cover at times is the game at UTSA last season. With crunch time in action, Gumms reeled off a big time catch down the sideline that would set up UNT inside the five. Turning a short out into a wheel route down the right sideline left a back peddling linebacker in the dust. Not to mention his catching ability. Gumms was able to high point the ball without losing much speed, allowing him to rumble and drag guys through the red zone. 

Polished Pass Catcher

It’s something that will show up time and time again in his game, but Gumms is multifaceted when it comes to hauling in passes as well. The one consistency that boosts his ceiling early on is how he secures a catch. Rather than being more of a ‘body catcher’ as Tyrone Broden is, Gumms secures a football with his hands every time if possible. That quality allows him to be stellar at high pointing the football above defenders, bolstering the mismatch qualities mentioned earlier. 

Gumms is also very good when it comes down to absorbing contact after the catch and still coming down with the football. Being able to reel in a catch while having the presence of mind to shield himself from an oncoming defender with his shoulder is punishing. No matter how he secures the ball, his speed will always take over after the catch. Not sacrificing speed on catches is a primary reason, but he also showcases above average acceleration for a 235 pound unit. 

Francis Sherman Background

Coming out of Bay Village, OH, Sherman was your run of the mill two-way athlete. Playing both defensive end and tight end, he would actually have more success as a pass rusher. Picking up six sacks his senior year, he would only snag six catches over at tight end. With minor looks to play defense at the college level, Sherman chose to walk-on at Louisville. 

His freshman season brought much more than anticipated as a former walk-on. Gaining nearly 35 pounds to fill into a tight end role, his work ethic was presented early. Battling his way through camps, he proved enough to appear in nine games during the 2020 season. With help from other players at the position, likely missing games, he wound up with three catches for 19 yards and a touchdown all against Wake. 

With tight end Marshon Ford taking the primary role as receiving tight end for the Cards, he would continue playing as a reserve blocking tight end. After not recording a reception in 2021, he would snag one more for 13 yards in 2022. 2022 would also be the year that he earned a scholarship. With a new pass-heavy scheme intruding upon Louisville, it was time to look for a scheme fit elsewhere. Needing another physical tight end to fit the desires of coordinator Dan Enos and work ethic of Sam Pittman, Arkansas became Sherman’s move. 

Bully Ball

When it comes down to where Sherman has been used on the football field, look no further than the run game. During the last two seasons, almost 75% of his recorded snaps have been as a run blocker. That number is contrasted by nearly 8% as a pass blocker. 

Earning a very solid run blocking grade during the ‘21 season, it did take a dip during 2022 as his snaps more than doubled. Bringing that mold to the table for Arkansas forms almost an exact replica of Nathan Bax, the super-senior tight end. As a player that has also specialized as a run blocker at the position and has seen minimal passes darted his way, they’re also both former walk-ons. As a complete opposite style of tight end than Gumms, Enos will be getting the complete package.

With the h-back position covered by Var’Keyes, Sherman can complete the need for an in-line tight end. Working with up to three tight ends on the field shouldn’t be near the problem that was glaring just a month back. 

Final Thoughts

It’s very difficult to look at both additions and not think that Dan Enos had this framed from the start. On one hand with Gumms, he gets the mold of his exceptional h-back tight end he had during his time at Maryland. For those unfamiliar, go watch the film of Chigoziem Okonkwo as a Terp. Every aspect of Gumms is featured in the game presented by Okonkwo to the point where that’s his perfect college comparison. If Gumms can reflect that value of play by a tight end who just completed his first year in the NFL, then this offense could jump a peg or two. 

Throwing the two four-star freshmen, especially Luke Hasz into this conversation is what allows the ceiling for this group to jump off the page. Gumms having his utilization set in stone, the use for Hasz can be endless. One might think mirrored h-back, slot tight end, split out… each of those options are on the table. Not to mention his Kyle Pitts-esc counterpart who has yet to arrive on campus in Shamar Easter. 

Letting the young, receiving tight ends continue to develop their blocking game while not costing development in the passing game will be possible with Sherman coming in. Pairing him up with Nathan Bax as guys who will be asked to be pure maulers at the point of attack is the final piece Enos needed. Sure, the addition of a former walk-on player isn’t the breaking news story many would have preferred. Utilizing 12- and 13- personnel as Enos does, now with two veteran, hard-nosed run blocking tight ends, it couldn’t be sexier. 

How the offense will look as a whole is still up in the air and will be while Pittman and Co. continue searching for potentially one final wideout addition. If the offensive additions end with the likes of Gumms and Sherman, it will be exactly what the doctor ordered.