FAYETTEVILLE — Tight end Hunter Henry turned in the biggest offensive play of Arkansas’ spring scrimmages earlier this month, catching a third down pass from quarterback Brandon Allen on a crossing route.
Henry picked up enough yards for a first down. But he turned in much more than that, shaking a tackle and outrunning defenders to the end zone for a 67-yard score.
A few days later, Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. pointed to the touchdown catch as precisely what the Razorbacks are expecting to see from Henry this season. But Lunney Jr. also added the big play was one the team’s leading returning receiver wasn’t capable of making last season.
“He wasn’t ever healthy enough last year to open up and run in the open field,” Lunney Jr. said. “So it was great to see him have that gear to punch it in.”
Arkansas has witnessed it a few times this spring as Henry continues to emerge as a key weapon in the passing game after catching 28 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. The Little Rock native didn’t want to make excuses, but admitted to playing with nagging issues that hindered his abilities last season.
Henry said the offseason has been vital in helping him prepare for the grind of another 12-game season. He’s healthy, bigger and ready for a starring role.
“I got banged up a little, just some muscular things and some fluid in my knees,” Henry said earlier this spring. “Last year, I didn’t really want that stuff to stop me from being on the field, so I was doing a lot of stuff just to get ready to be out on the field. It was a long grind for me during the season, but I worked really hard throughout the offseason just to get bulkier, get faster, get ready for this.
“I know what’s coming up. I’m more experienced.”
Henry instant impact as a freshman was certainly no surprise.
He was a coveted prospect who chose to stay in state and be a member of Bielema’s first signing class despite an offer to play at Alabama. The tight end position has been a staple of both coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s philosophies and Henry was believed to be a great fit.
Henry played in every game and finished three catches behind senior Javontee Herndon, who had 31 receptions. But Lunney Jr. said Henry was capable of so much more if not for injuries that limited him on a regular basis.
“They never really saw his full threshold of what he’s capable of doing,” Lunney Jr. said. “I’m just telling you, he limped and struggled through practices quite a bit. Really, we needed to play him. I think he fought through it and I think it says a lot about how tough he is. He just didn’t feel good. You could just tell his lower body wouldn’t allow him to open up and run.
Henry’s spring is a good indication he’s over the injury issues.
In fact, Lunney Jr. said Henry is quicker and has shown more burst. It has helped the tight end become a primary target whether he is in a three-point stance at the line of scrimmage, in the Arkansas backfield, or lining up out wide.
Henry said he’s enjoying the workload after being limited throughout 2013.
“It’s fun running around,” Henry said. “Just being out there and being able to make plays, run. I mean, I was out there and was still doing my best out there last year. And it felt like I had a great year. But being healthy, being fully healthy, and just being able to run around, to just develop as a big target for this offense is fun.”
Henry is the leader of a tight end group that has shown plenty of play-making ability this spring. Jeremy Sprinkle has improved after catching four passes for 68 yards as a redshirt freshman. Former quarterback A.J. Derby has settled in, too, as he turns in his third week at the position. Arkansas also has Alex Voelzke returning, while Mitchell Loewen is sidelined until the summer because of a knee injury.
So Arkansas has help for Henry. Chaney said it has been a good spring for the group.
“I think Barry has done a wonderful job with them,” Chaney said. “They’re good kids. They’re working hard. There’s competition in the room. We all know competition brings out the best in all of them. … Those kids have done a great job.”
Henry, of course, will enter the season as Arkansas’ primary target.
Henry said he weighs between 250 and 255 pounds this spring after an offseason in the weight room with strength coach Ben Herbert. He played at approximately 248 pounds last season, but concentrated on adding more muscle mass to play tight end.
Henry also spent time in the film room during the winter trying to get a better feel for defenses, blitzes and coverages. He said it’s helping on the field this spring.
“I’m confident knowing what I’m going to do so I’m able to play faster,” Henry said.
Of course, there’s nothing like being healthy enough to do it as well.
“The speed for me has picked up a lot,” Henry said. “I feel fresh. I feel good.”