FAYETTEVILLE - Until completing junior college transfer academic requirements, tight end Jeremy Patton couldn’t report to the University of Arkansas and participate in the Razorbacks’ conditioning workouts while they were enrolled in UA summer semester classes.
So Patton was “like a race car catching up from a lap behind,” Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney said four days into the official workouts that Patton had just qualified to participate.
If Patton is “a race car catching up,” Lunney was asked, what kind of vehicle is Austin Cantrell, the third-year sophomore starting tight end from Roland, Okla.?
“He’s like a tank,” Lunney said. “He’s like a tank that just plows.”
Cantrell, Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema and Lunney have both said, “could be the best blocking tight end in college football.”
Though last year’s Razorbacks backup to current NFL rookie tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, Cantrell, 6-3, blocked with devastating 269-pound impact in two tight ends sets with Sprinkle or on his own giving Sprinkle a break.
The tank doesn’t so much a resemble a tank now. Cantrell weighed in at a less tank-like 253 before a practice last week, but still blocks like one, Lunney insists.
“No, not at all,” Lunney said when asked if weighing less render Cantrell less of a blocker. “I think he could weigh 210 pounds and still block. He’s just naturally strong and tough. He has really good fundamentals, kind of naturally had them. So no, I haven’t seen an issue there at all. It (Cantrell’s blocking) has only continued to improve.”
A svelter tank is still a tank, it seems.
“I still feel good,” Cantrell said. “Yeah, honestly I feel better. I can keep my feet moving and stuff and that helps me a little bit, So I keep guys in front of me.”
And stay in the game longer because his motor revs longer minus 16 pounds from 2016.
“One thing about him that we’ve really challenged Austin on is about his conditioning level and endurance,” Lunney said. “Man, he took that to heart. I think Herbs (strength coach Ben Herbert) and the staff, they all got together and tried to do a little extra and I think it’s really paid off for him. He’s been able to play a few more snaps in a row without getting fatigued. I know he’s slimmed down and it’s helped him become a little bit more of a part of what we’re doing in the passing game.”
Because he blocks so well and tight ends Patton, and third-year sophomores Cheyenne O’Grady of Fayetteville and Will Gragg of Dumas, junior Jack Kraus of Bentonville and sophomore Grayson Gunter are gifted as receivers, it sometimes seems that Cantrell gets pigeonholed as just a blocker.
Fact is no returning Razorbacks tight end caught anything remotely so much as Cantrell’s 13 catches for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2016. So he’s an underestimated receiver, it seems.
“I wouldn’t say that people underestimate me or anything,” Cantrell said. “I just don’t think that I’ve had a whole lot of opportunities. I caught a couple of balls last year but I didn’t catch any deep balls or anything like that. But if it happens, it happens.”
Tanks don’t come equipped with wings to detonate on the fly. But Cantrell did surprise Mississippi State last season with a 32-yard reception from quarterback Austin Allen before completing the drive with another surprise, a 1-yard touchdown pass from running back Rawleigh Williams.
And with weight shed to the low 250s, this tank does motor more like his sub 240-pound Roland High School days when he seldom was off the field. Cantrell also excelled as a defensive end and starred offensively as not only a blocking but running H-back, 95 carries for 600 yards and 9 touchdowns, and tight end end, 14 catches for 270 yards and a touchdown.
“It’s helped me out as a receiver,” Cantrell said. “I’m able to get in and out of my cuts better and change directions better. I only weighed 237 when I got here out of high school and I feel better now than I did then.”
He says he’s certainly more mentally equipped now than this time last year off a redshirt year.
“I remember the first two or three games last year I messed up so many plays,” Cantrell said. “It wasn’t obvious but I think I’ve come a long way since last year for sure.”
Obviously it’s not a long way from Roland near Fort Smith to Fayetteville, but what prompted Cantrell to cross the recruiting state line rather than stay instate with the Oklahoma Sooners or Oklahoma State Cowboys?
They didn’t quickly seek him and Arkansas did.
“My first offer was UCO (University of Central Oklahoma),” Cantrell said. “It’s a Division II school in Edmond. Right after that Arkansas offered me. And after I committed to Arkansas, OU offered me at I think outside linebacker. But I fell in love with place, so …”
Any second thoughts.
“No,” Cantrell said. “None at all.”