Featured image courtesy of The Arkansas Democrat Gazette
One of the biggest questions that has littered Arkansas’ camps has been how new coordinator Dan Enos plans to utilize tight ends. Coming in by way of Maryland, the talk has been lasered in on 12 personnel. As something he integrated during his first Arkansas stop, it’s a decision that will be a part of his offensive scheme once more. The biggest concern in the present day is that Hunter Henry isn’t walking through the doors of Razorback stadium. Speaking of which, let’s revisit Enos’ first stop in Fayetteville.
From a strict offensive perspective, Enos ran one of Arkansas’ most effective in his debut season. Following 2015, his offense became one of just three in school history to surpass the 6,000 yard mark. Not to mention, quarterback Brandon Allen wrangled three school records to boot. Alex Collins also put up inhuman numbers taking the reins at running back (rest in love). Staring down the tight end production, it was also some of the best seen at Arkansas. The combo of stellar receiving tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle dominated. With Henry putting up 739 yards to pair with Sprinkle’s 389, they accounted for 31.7% of the team’s receptions.
Despite two tight end sets being tied to Enos’ hip, the 2015 season often had one on the field at a time. Just because he could play more than one future NFL tight end didn’t mean it was required. Even so, using two or more tight ends is where Henry made his mark. A high usage of play action would often leak one of two tight ends into an open check down route. Other cases would have extra attention drawn to the tight ends, opening up the middle of the field for receivers. Considering only two Arkansas tight ends were on the other end of passes during that season, there was an obvious issue: depth.
Behind Henry and Sprinkle, pass catching was a dodgy subject. There were multiple, however, that were willing and physical blockers. With the run game as dominant as it was, that’s where the 12+ personnel was primarily used. They also played a vital role as lead blockers on jet sweeps and development of screen plays that Enos tossed in occasionally.
As talent in the room began to drop off his final two seasons as OC, keeping the 2015 group healthy proved vital. The most yardage put up after 2015 was Sprinkle’s 380 receiving yards the year after. It was unfortunately the same in the blocking department as rushing numbers continued to decline. It was then that Enos moved on to continue his career.
Tight End Usage at Maryland
As the tight end position continued to evolve, the same could be said about Enos’ offense. Freak athlete and now NFL tight end Chig Okonkwo played a major role in formational changes. With capable in-line tight ends on the 2021 Maryland roster, Enos began incorporating more formations with a tight end at the h-back spot. The pure athleticism of Okonkwo placed him at that h-back spot seemingly 99% of the time. As a result, he hauled in 52 catches for 447 yards. Despite the high mark, tight ends only accounted for 22% of Maryland’s receptions in Enos’ first year.
Diving into the h-back position, it was something that opened up the playbook greatly, especially with two star receivers on the outside. With Enos’ secret admiration for screen passes, tight end screens became a sneaky good utility. He would also call tight end screens in empty sets. Safe to say Chig’s speed at 240 pounds was not kept sidelined. Before anyone gets ahead of themselves, it wasn’t all screens. Don’t let Kendall Briles’ remnants stress the mind.
There were quite a few ways Enos began to flex the position. Beginning with the RPO game, the h-back was a primary read. Acting as a blocker before peeling into a short route it was often too late for a linebacker to make a read on both the running back and h-back. The same peel route was used in the pass game as well. Some plays would match the h-back with an offset linebacker, allowing for athleticism to win in the open field.
What I would consider my favorite aspect of the peel route is using it as a rub route. With a wide receiver on the h-back’s side, the receiver would run an in or slant pattern which ran right over the top of the h-back’s route. As a result, many corners were forced to make a decision which often led to an easy five-yard catch every time. Other common routes run by his h-back spot included five-yard outs and crossing routes for needed distance over the middle.
Losing Okonkwo for the 2022 season, CJ Dippre became nearly as effective taking over the h-back role. As part of another tight end duo under Enos, Dippre only hauled in 30 catches. His play and utilization in one season as a Terrapin got him to Tuscaloosa via the portal, which cannot be overlooked. Many considered Dippre to be the best tight end of the 2023 portal cycle.
Who Plugs Where?
With the well discussed 12 personnel clearly playing a role straight from the mouth of coach Sam Pittman let’s look at the best case scenario for the set. During his time at Arkansas and Maryland, Enos’ two tight end sets almost always had variability. In other words, there was one primary blocker and one primary receiver. Looking back at 2015 again, think Austin Cantrell and Hunter Henry.
To this point, the primary blocking tight end(s) are obvious to spot. Despite being banged up recently, Nathan Bax brings back SEC experience and looks to be the most balanced blocker. Transfer addition Francis Sherman will also get plenty of chances in his own right as a chippy run blocker. No matter which of the two wind up as the primary blocker, both dominate as in-line tight ends.
While the topic of youth runs rampant among the receiving tight ends, talent isn’t something in question. Making a prediction to whom can be the leading receiver at the position is tough, but Var’Keyes Gumms has all the makings of a number one. One thing that has likely worked against him during camp is adjusting as an in-line tight end. During high school and time at North Texas, Gumms lined up at h-back for the majority. Despite his lack of experience outside of h-back, his abilities should all translate seamlessly.
Tyrus Washington is a name that keeps getting lost in the mix. Showing a flash in the Liberty Bowl last season, he’s continued to build his game in camp. Washington is as capable a pass catcher as any player on the roster. Having some game experience is vital, but his talent will transition into a role in 2023. As Luke Hasz continues to come one strong, he will also immediately have a spot. While player comparisons can become cliché, his mold fits Enos’ 12 personnel seamlessly. Still developing as a blocker, Hasz has the potential to be as good as any under Enos. Starting with his athleticism, he pairs great acceleration with secure hands and can play any TE spot Enos’ needs.
In a recent post-practice press conference, multiple tight ends had positive things to say regarding freshman Luke Hasz:
Speaking of athleticism, Enos’ primary h-back will need a glass half full. While Gumms will almost certainly be the guy at that spot based on each variable, it’s hard to not see Shamar Easter eventually work into that role. Possessing a frame that just needs to be filled out, his ball catching ability can rival that of Kyle Pitts. Making up for lost time in the spring, Easter has been “taking big jumps” both on the field and primarily in the weight room according to tight end coach Morgan Turner. He may certainly work into the spot this season, but lookout for him down the road if Enos sticks around.
Known to split tight ends out as well, it’s another aspect Enos has brought with him according to coach Turner and players. Once again, Gumms is the safe bet in those situations, but it should be Luke Hasz’s to lose. Playing for Bixby, OK, Hasz got his four-star status from being a phenomenal receiver when split out. Considering blocking isn’t a strong suit quite yet, focussing him on running routes and making grabs is ideal. Doing such would assure he plays more snaps and gains invaluable SEC experience as a freshman.
Depth, Depth, Depth
If the depth of the tight end room wasn’t obvious to this point, it’s something that has to be discussed. As mentioned earlier, the lack of talented receivers at tight end wound up costing Enos following the 2015 season. Time at Maryland produced depth, but there was still a decent drop off at the top. Looking at Arkansas’ current tight end room, the only fear is lack of experience. With snippets of Fall camp info reaching ears, it sounds as if hands shouldn’t be a concern. Looking at Gumms, Washington, Hasz, and Easter, those are all above average receiving tight ends who just need to get more snaps. A clear tier level will eventually begin to develop, but coach Enos and Turner have to feel pleased about the plug and play ability of those four guys.
An even greater pressure off the shoulders of the coaches is having two tight ends with a knack for physicality. As Bax and Sherman continue to battle to be the primary blocking tight end, there’s no shortage of experience. The injury concerns for Nathan Bax have obviously shaken things up. Being able to come back relatively soon, both players will get their shot. Only one can be named a starter, but that doesn’t mean they won’t play indifferent snap counts. Sherman’s chip on his shoulder may just give him a leg up.
Another aspect of this tight end room is that they’re built for the long haul. With Nathan Bax being the only player with one year left to play, reps will be huge for each individual. While there are no tight ends committed for the 2024 class, the room’s depth may be an underlying reason. If they develop as expected, maybe just one addition will be needed from the portal. Considering they all stick around, maybe everyone can be at peace regarding the tight end room for 2024.