Arkansas tight end A.J. Derby is drawing increased interest from NFL scouts who visit Razorbacks practices, and according to coach Bret Bielema, there are similarities between the senior and the best tight end Bielema has ever been around: former Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark.
When Clark arrived at Iowa in 1999, Bielema was the Hawkeyes' linebackers coach, and Clark tried his hand on the defensive side of the ball before switching to tight end. Like Clark, Derby has gone through a position change, bouncing to three schools as a quarterback (Iowa, Coffeyville Community College, and Arkansas), before moving to tight end for his final college season.
The transition, Bielema said, has not been unlike Clark's.
"Last year when I switched him, I thought he had a chance to do it, but I had no idea what was in store for us," Bielema said. "(Clark) went 100 miles an hour, but he couldn't always see things defensively, as far as reading guard pulls, sweeps and all that stuff. But he could run and caught the ball well, so Kirk Ferentz switched him to tight end and the rest was history. (Derby) reminds me a lot of that. I'm not saying he's Dallas Clark, but his ability in transition has been uncanny. "
Bielema said Derby caught 12 passes in his first scrimmage as a tight end, and over the last few weeks, has begun to embrace "the nasty side of the game." Bielema said he believes Derby's real value at the NFL level could be in his versatility. NFL players who can do enough to account for two roster spots are in high demand, and Bielema said he thinks Derby could double as a tight end and a third-team quarterback at the next level.
"I think what really jumps out to NFL teams, you know he played quarterback his whole life," Bielema said. "I think he could realistically be a third-team quarterback on an (NFL) roster, to get you out of a game. He takes snaps every day. That part of his life, he hasn't forgotten. He's a promising player."
Derby certainly has the size to play both positions, at 6-5, 255 pounds. He completed 19 of 36 passes for 178 yards as a backup quarterback last year for the Razorbacks. This year at tight end, he's caught 15 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns.
Derby might never be a Dallas Clark at tight end, but then again, Clark never had a chance to serve as an emergency quarterback.