Associated Press and staff reports
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema heaped praise upon former Iowa Hawkeye A.J. Derby during spring practices. And the coach picked right up where he left off this week at Southeastern Conference Media Days.
“At tight end, we have Hunter Henry back, who was a freshman sensation,” Bielema said. “But A.J. Derby, in my opinion, may be one of the surprises of our football team, but one of the best stories in the SEC this year. I think he’s shown us in practice what he can be is truly exceptional.”
Derby, an Iowa City High alum and son of former Hawkeye star John Derby, played in nine games as a redshirt freshman at Iowa in 2011 and completed three passes for a total of 30 yards. He moved on to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, leading his team to the Region IV semifinals.
Last year, Derby saw action in seven games for Arkansas and made his first career start at Rutgers. He finished the year 19-of-36 passing for 178 yards and one touchdown.
Derby wanted to remain at quarterback, but realized he might not see the field in his final season. With some gentle encouragement from Bielema, who played with Derby’s father at Iowa, Derby switched from quarterback to tight end prior to the start of spring practice.
“I feel like A.J. Derby is going to be one of those stories where you say, ‘He was just a backup quarterback, and now he’s been in the (NFL) at tight end for 10 years,'” running back Jonathan Williams said. “I mean, he’s made that such of a quick jump. It’s so natural to him.”
Derby originally signed with Iowa to begin his career, but he was quickly met with talk of a possible position change. Rather than switch to tight end or linebacker, Derby transferred to Coffeyville. The 6-foot-5, 264-pound Derby struggled with his accuracy and turnovers in junior college — completing 46.4 percent (149 of 321) of his passes while throwing 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Derby arrived at Arkansas prior to last year’s spring practice, and his experience earned him the backup quarterback position last season. And when Brandon Allen was injured early last year, Derby stepped in and led the Razorbacks to a win over Southern Mississippi.
Allen’s return and added quarterback depth — along with a lack of established playmakers at wide receiver — led Bielema to once again broach the subject of a position switch.
This time, coming off a disappointing 3-9 season that saw Arkansas go winless in the Southeastern Conference and lose its final nine games, Derby was ready to listen.
“I was all-in at quarterback,” Derby said. “… But I want to be a leader on the team, and I think the best way for me to be a leader is to be on the field, so I’m all-in on this and I want to help this team win.”
The Razorbacks already return one of the top tight ends in the league in sophomore Henry, who was second-team all-SEC last year as a freshman, but Bielema is excited about the prospect of having two threats at the position.
He even went as far during the spring to compare Derby’s emergence to that of former Iowa and NFL standout Dallas Clark, who switched from linebacker to tight end while in college.
“I’m not saying he’s going to be all that, but the transition has been as seamless as I can imagine,” Bielema said. “Not just catching it … But what he does in the running game. He changes our offense literally overnight.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football