FAYETTEVILLE – Even as its favorite son’s playing time went way up, Lamar traffic on Arkansas football game days to Reynolds Razorback Stadium dipped way down last autumn.
Concerns over the covid-19 pandemic and game day restricted attendance because of the pandemic kept Lamar folks home while senior tight end Blake Kern of Lamar accelerated his Razorbacks career catches from zero to 20 with 201 yards and two touchdowns.
It would have been quite career closer for the Lamar homeboy walking on to the Hogs and making good, paying his own way to redshirt one year and still scout team apprentice the next then earning a scholarship two years lettering strictly as a blocker. That would have sufficed but then excelling at the all-round receiving opportunity that new Coach Sam Pittman and new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles provided last season, what a capper.
Except there’s more, this year’s encore. Seniors everywhere during last fall’s covid plagued season had the opportunity if asked to return for an extra senior season in 2021.
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. “This is my dream and 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.”
Now with statewide covid conditions deemed sufficiently improved that Arkansas allows fans to attend Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. Razorbacks scrimmage, he anticipates seeing familiar faces in Saturday’s crowd.
“Yeah, all of Lamar will be there,” Kern, media available along with third-year sophomore defensive end Eric Gregory, said after Thursday’s closed practice inside the Walker Pavilion. “Mom, dad, sister, cousin, their cousin, everybody.”
So Saturday makes up for a little Lamar lost time in Lamar watching their homeboy catch a pass or two.
“We talked all last year about everybody from my hometown that 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, the Razorbacks under Pittman with a strictly SEC schedule went 3-7 and were deprived of being 4-6 because of an officiating crew’s error returning to Auburn a fumble recovered by the Razorbacks.
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 fuels last fall’s momentum into spring.
Ashley’s Odom approved widening the splits for the defensive ends which Ashley had done last year coaching at Tulsa, already makes a pass-rushing difference, Gregory said.
“It gives us less men double-teamed on the interior,” Gregory said. “The movement has helped us a lot with our pass rush. We can set more moves and stuff up instead of getting double-teamed and clustered up in the middle.”
What else is Ashley doing?
“He’s working more on our hands,” Gregory said. “To get our hands and feet coordinated together. That’s helping us out 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.”
Gregory, 6-4, can throw his weight around now up about 20 pounds.
“I’m actually 300 right now,” Gregory said. “I really feel like I haven’t gained any weight to be honest with you because I’m still moving pretty good. So I don’t feel like I gained too much weight. I feel like I can move pretty good with it.”
The extra weight increases his versatility practicing some at defensive tackle in addition to defensive end.
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 trust 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 again 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.”
He still needs to be hefty enough to block, particularly with Pittman emphasizing running rather than passing on third and three.
“I always hang my hat on the run-blocking part of football,” 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.”