Friday, August 11, 2017
By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - This year, Will Gragg vows to extend his Arkansas football Tale of Two Cities to three.
For two years at Pine Bluff, then his senior year at Dumas, Gragg established himself as among Arkansas’ best all-time high school tight ends, coveted by colleges coast to coast.
For a state already in 2015 enamored with tight end Hunter Henry, the eventual 2015 Mackey Award winner as the best tight end in the country, and Jeremy Sprinkle, Gragg enrolling early at the UA as a December high school graduate for the 2015 spring semester held promise of him bringing great things to Fayetteville.
So far, they are undelivered.
Gragg redshirted in 2015 with fellow freshman tight ends Austin Cantrell and Cheyenne “C.J.” O’Grady.
In 2016 behind Sprinkle, Cantrell because of his blocking and O’Grady because of his receiving, passed Gragg, as did true freshman Grayson Gunter.
Gragg never played a game.
Sprinkle has since graduated to the NFL, but Arkansas coach Bret Bielema signed Jeremy Patton, nationally considered the top junior college tight end.
Then Gragg fell behind again.
He suffered a concussion the first Tuesday before the first preseason scrimmage Aug. 5 that he was medically forbidden to play.
“A freak accident,” Gragg said. “(Trainer) Matt Summers is doing a great job in getting it right. He and Coach B are taking all the precautions that they need to make sure I’m good.”
It’s got to feel bad, though, forced to sit while others play.
“It’s tough, but you’ve got to take it one step at a time,” Gragg said. “I’m still at every meeting and getting every mental rep. My position coach (Barry Lunney) is doing a great job communicating the new installs we’re doing. I feel like I’m missing it physically, but I’m all there mentally.”
It seems many in Gragg’s shoes wouldn’t be here physically, but already moved on.
“No, no,” Gragg replied if he ever considered transferring. "I’m an Arkansas boy at heart.”
More like the Arkansas traveler, it seems.
Kelvin Gragg and Tenita Gragg, Will’s father and mother, are educators that likely could qualify as the Southeast Arkansas Educators Couple of the Year most any year.
“I’ve lived in Warren, Monticello, Newport, Pine Bluff and Dumas,” Will said. “So I pretty much have Southeast Arkansas covered. My dad is still the superintendent at Dumas.”
Will loves Dumas where he’s lived twice and he reacquainted with Dumas boyhood friend Johnny Gibson, Arkansas' fourth-year junior starting right offensive guard.
Will will never forget starring (47 catches for 517 yards and seven touchdowns) for the Pine Bluff Zebras’ 2013 state champions.
“I’m always a Pine Bluff Zebra at heart,” Gragg said. “I wore the stripes, a championship mentality all the time. We don’t expect nothing less from the Zebras.”
Despite his Pine Bluff and Dumas (42 catches for 452 yards) experiences, Gragg said he knew from those 2015 spring practices that a redshirt season awaited.
“I knew I wasn’t ready to play right away sitting behind Hunter and Jeremy,” Gragg said. “I was just learning the things I need to do to take over the Y position at tight end.”
Family ties keep pulling him along. Older brother Chris Gragg lettered four of his five 2008-2012 Razorbacks years and has been a NFL tight end from 2013-2016 with the Buffalo Bills and now plays for the New York Jets.
So tight end remains in Will’s blood even as it seems he might have played at a different position.
“This is what you come here for,” Will said.
“You come here to take your time and play until Hunter and Jeremy get out the way. I knew that coming here. You just have to get in there and work. My brother is doing a great job of telling me just to keep work working. The other tight ends are doing a great job trying to be the best tight end unit we can be.”
In retrospect, Will may have put himself behind last season trying too hard to emulate Cantrell, whose frame carries 260-plus pounds with massive authority.
Weighing close to 260 just slowed Will’s way.
“Austin is probably one of the best blocking tight ends in the country,” Gragg said. “He’s a hard-nosed, eat-nails type of guy.”
Gragg is the more one size, if at his right size, do-something-of-everything type of tight end.
“Last year, I was 258 and I couldn’t do anything that I needed to do comfortably,” Gragg, 6-5, said. “Coach B and Coach Lunney sat me down and told me what I needed to do. I’ve toned my body up and worked hard and got my weight down and I feel like I’m moving pretty good. I’m 6-5, 245. I’m heavy enough to go in there and block when I need to, but also beat linebackers and stuff in the route game.”
Gragg’s summer work paid off, Lunney said.
“I’m really proud of him,” Lunney said. “I think we all are as a staff the way he has progressed and been really diligent about improving. As his coach since he’s been here, it’s noticeable the improvements he’s made.”
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