HOGS: D linemen widen splits; Notes
FAYETTEVILLE - Even as playing time went way up last fall for Lamar's favorite son, the traffic from the small town in Johnson County to Reynolds Razorback Stadium dipped.
Concerns over the covid-19 pandemic and Game Day restricted attendance kept Lamar folks home, while senior tight end Blake Kern of Lamar accelerated his UA career catches from zero to 20 with 201 yards and two touchdowns.
It would have been quite a career closer for the Lamar homeboy, who walked on to the Hogs and paid his own way to redshirt one year and remained a scout team apprentice the next year. Then Kern earned a scholarship after strictly blocking for two years. That would have sufficed, but then he excelled at the all-round receiving opportunity that new coach Sam Pittman and new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles provided last season.
NOW THE ENCORE
Seniors everywhere during last fall’s covid-plagued season had the opportunity to encore in 2021, if asked to return for an extra senior season.
Kern didn’t hesitate answering Pittman’s call, becoming a graduated (sports management degree) sixth year senior.
“Coming back, man, I didn’t really have a choice being from the state of Arkansas and being from a small town,” Kern said. “I’m living my dream and I really didn’t have anything else to do. So come back and work on my masters (engineering operations management) and play for the Hogs. Can’t get better than that.”
UP FROM LAMAR
Now with statewide covid conditions deemed sufficiently improved that Arkansas allows fans to attend Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. scrimmage, Kern anticipates seeing familiar faces in Saturday’s crowd.
“Yeah, all of Lamar will be there,” Kern, media available with third-year sophomore defensive end Eric Gregory, said after Thursday’s practice. “Mom, dad, sister, cousin, their cousin, everybody.”
So, Saturday makes up for a little lost time in Lamar, watching its homeboy catch a pass or two.
“We talked all last year about everybody from my hometown who didn’t get to come,” Kern said. “Whenever I got more involved in the offense, everybody was trying to come. Just the world we live in wasn’t allowing that, so yeah, it’s going to be fun.”
Gregory, from Memphis, won’t have so many nearby home folk trekking to Fayetteville but welcomes the crowd nonetheless.
“It’s going to be huge,” Gregory said. “We’ll be happy to bring the fans in. It’s going to give us a lot of energy for our defense and offense.”
After successive 0-8 in the SEC seasons under the previous Chad Morris regime, Pittman's Razorbacks went 3-7 (strictly SEC schedule) last fall and were deprived of being 4-6 because of an officiating crew’s error at Auburn.
Gregory said being able to retain defensive coordinator Barry Odom against offers from other schools and striving to improve the pass rush under new defensive line coach Jermial Ashley fuel last fall’s momentum into spring.
Ashley’s (Odom-approved) widening the splits for the defensive ends as he did last year at Tulsa makes a pass-rushing difference, Gregory said.
“It gives us fewer double-teams on the interior,” Gregory said. “The movement has helped us a lot with our pass rush. We can set up more moves and stuff instead of getting double-teamed and clustered up in the middle.”
Ashley is also teaching handwork to his down linemen.
“To get our hands and feet coordinated," Gregory said. "That’s helping us a lot with our pass rush. Then just shedding, and learning how to work on a double-team, like pressing one guy instead of pressing two. All of that is helping our pass rush a lot.”
A BIGGER BODY
Gregory, 6-4, can throw his weight around, now up about 20 pounds.
“I’m 300 right now,” Gregory said. “I really feel like I haven’t gained any weight because I’m still moving pretty good. So I don’t feel like I gained too much weight.”
The extra weight increases his versatility, practicing some at defensive tackle, in addition to end.
TIGHT ENDS COACH
Kern also has a new position coach with former Tulane and Southern Miss assistant Cody Kennedy coaching tight ends.
“He comes in and immediately grabs our respect with his intensity and his attention to detail,” Kern said. “He trusts us. That is the number one thing you need as a football player changing coaches: you want a guy to come in, and he trusts you.”
Kern trusts he’ll be an integral part of the passing game and adjust accordingly.
“I want to transition into a ball catcher,” Kern, 6-4, said. “I’ve lost some weight. Hopefully, that'll get me moving better and feeling better.”
Kern still needs to be hefty enough to block, particularly with Pittman emphasizing running rather than passing on third and short.
“I always hang my hat on the run-blocking part,” Kern said. “Whenever you've gotta get three, you've got to have a guy who can get you three. I'm going to cut to just enough weight to where I can still pride myself on my blocking and catch some balls and have a little fun."