Bret Bielema had tried to convince AJ Derby to move ever since he was in grade school. Derby wanted to be a quarterback, which was fine, but Bielema saw another future for him, either at linebacker or tight end. He was going to be big and fast and strong, Bielema knew, and it felt like a waste to have him limiting those skills under center.
Patience, Arkansas’ coach understood, would be the key. And nearly 20 years after first laying eyes on Derby the quarterback, he finally has Derby the tight end.
“AJ and I are very unique,” Bielema told ESPN on Tuesday. “I’ve known him since he was under the age of 5. I played with his dad at the University of Iowa, so I’ve known him since he was a little guy and have watched him grow up. When he was a high school senior, we offered him a scholarship. I did tell him he could play quarterback, but I also told them he might either be a tight end or outside linebacker. So I’ve been trying to get him to do this for a little over 20 years.
“He didn’t want to do it, and I appreciated his commitment to I’m a quarterback, I’m a quarterback, I’m a quarterback. But on the same account, with three weeks remaining in spring ball, I told him, ‘AJ, just give me two weeks at the tight end position, and if I’m wrong you’ll move back to quarterback and you won’t miss a day, you won’t miss your spot and we’ll act like it never happened.
“He literally changed in the first practice. He made some catches where everybody was saying, ‘Look at this!’ It’s blown me away.”
It was a hard pill to swallow for Derby, who left Iowa after being asked by the staff to try linebacker. He instead transferred to a community college and then followed Bielema to Arkansas last season, where he was the primary backup at quarterback and started his first career game against Rutgers.
Only a few weeks ago he was competing with Brandon Allen for the starting job. But the 6-foot-5, 246-pound senior soon saw the writing on the wall. Allen quickly took control of the offense, showing better arm strength and poise than a season ago. Rafe Peavey, a highly recruited early enrollee freshman, wasn’t going to be moved from quarterback, either.
It was only a matter of time before Bielema came around again asking about a position change. But this time it felt different.
“I was ready to help the team win and get on the field,” Derby said. “I came in to a very good group of tight ends and I’m ready to compete with those guys.
“Coach left it up to me. It was my decision. But I wanted to help the team win as best I can, and I think being a leader is one of those things I can help with.”
As it turns out, both Derby and Bielema’s instincts were right. In full shoulder pads with his hand in the dirt, the lanky passer transformed from the first practice he trotted out to tight end. His knowledge as a quarterback has served him well, but so has his athleticism. At a scrimmage last weekend he made a one-handed touchdown reception and was immediately bombarded by his teammates in celebration.
“The adjustment has gone really well,” Derby said. “Being a quarterback, I already knew what everyone is supposed to do. So the passing game has been easy. The big adjustment was the running game and getting my footwork down.”
For now, Derby isn’t putting too much pressure on himself. When asked if he expected to be a major part of the offense, he said he wasn’t looking at it that way. In typical coachspeak, he said he wanted to take it one day at a time. And considering the sudden change of direction in his career, who can blame him?
But his actual coach wasn’t so reserved. Bielema is already turning NFL scouts on to his new tight end.
“I truly think he’s going to be rewarded,” Bielema said of the position change, “and not just for the next several months. He’s shown and showcased some things. I’ve already inquired to some of my guys in the profession that, ‘Look, you need to talk to this guy about representing him at the next level.’ The scouts as they come in are going to be impressed with what he’s doing.
“He’s a freak show. I’ve had this experience before,” Bielema continued, citing Travis Beckum and Dallas Clark, both of whom he coached and had change positions to tight end, where they went on to have NFL careers. “I’ve seen this rodeo before. He’s got the potential for some serious rewards down the line.
“He will put on 10 pounds, become faster, become stronger, become more athletic over the course of the next eight weeks. He’ll be a 250-255 pound tight end in the fall that can catch two-hands, one-hand, behind the back, you name it. He’s very, very gifted.”
The offense, which has been lacking in terms of playmakers in the passing game, could use all the help it can get.
“We really felt when we have one tight end, that’s great,” Bielema said. “But when you have two or three tight ends who can play on a championship level, we’ve got a good thing. Last year, all we had was Hunter. People could zone in on him, key in on him and take him out of the game. Now not only do you have the emergence of AJ and Hunter, but Jeremy Sprinkle has had a good spring.
“When you have one tight end, that’s one thing. But when you have two that can vertically challenge a defense, you’ve got something special.”