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An everlasting bond

Former Pulaski Academy teammates Fredi Knighten, Hunter Henry hang on to friendship by Nate Olson | August 25, 2015 at 3:28 p.m.
Before they became college football standouts, Hunter Henry (right) and Fredi Knighten were dominating opposing defenses and developed a bond on and off the field. That friendship is still strong, even though they are attending colleges in different parts of the state.

Last season, Fredi Knighten almost started a mutiny among his Arkansas State University teammates. Not only was the Red Wolves senior quarterback watching an Arkansas game on the team bus, he was — gasp — cheering for the Razorbacks.

“It’s serious, especially with the football team. [UA] has lost some games over the past few years, and we have actually beaten some teams they have lost to, so it brings up the conversation sometimes of us being better than [Arkansas],” ASU senior wide receiver J.D. McKissic says. “Sometimes, we see [ASU] students wearing an Arkansas T-shirt, and we just look at them like, ‘What are you doing?’”

Knighten, who was riding on the team bus following an A-State win at Georgia State University, had a logical explanation, though. The Hogs were trailing SEC power the University of Alabama 14-13 in the fourth quarter and were trying to drive to take the lead. Knighten was pulling hard for his good friend Hunter Henry, the Hogs star tight end and Knighten’s high school teammate at Pulaski Academy.

“It was a close game late, and as soon as I turned it on, Hunter caught a pass. I yelled, 'Go Hunter!'” Knighten says. “They ran a couple of plays and didn’t throw it to him, and I said, ‘What are you doing? If you want to win the game, throw Hunter the ball.’ Some of the guys were like, ‘Hush.’”

McKissic says he sees both sides of the debate and stays neutral, but “[Henry] is his best friend and teammate from high school, so I don’t think there is anything wrong with him cheering for the Razorbacks.”

While the pair starred together at the private school in west Little Rock, they forged a bond that overcomes distance and the bitterness of an in-state college rivalry. (The rivalry part is disputed by some Hogs fans.)

“We played three years together and did a lot of stuff together,” says Henry, a junior Hogs tight end who was named a preseason All-American by ESPN on Aug. 24. “We were here every day working out and doing a lot of things. You build a special bond through sports. That’s why I love sports because you build lifetime friends through going through different battles with each other.”

Since they last played prep football together in the Class 4A state title game in 2011, they have gone their separate ways. Both have excelled and have made a name for themselves. This year as they cheer for each other, they hope for many celebratory texts and phone calls as both the Red Wolves and Razorbacks hope to compete for conference championships.

“As a coach, we talk about being a family, but sometimes you don’t know if that really happens or not,” Pulaski Academy football Coach Kevin Kelley says. “But these two guys are a prime example of that. They are in different corners of the state, but they are still buddies. After their freshman year, they talked about how hard football is. You are moving in and going to class and playing football.

“When you go through something like a husband and wife go through — tough times or going through war — or football, you get close. There is a bond. I love seeing these guys come back happy and laughing. It’s genuinely great to see.”

WHERE IT STARTED

On a warm, sunny day in late May, Knighten is soaking up memories of his past. He is sitting on the visitor’s bench at Pulaski Academy’s Joe B. Hatcher Stadium, recalling the first time he met his buddy Henry.

“I was sitting on that wall over there, and he walked by. I said, ‘Who is this big guy?’ Somebody told me he moved in from Atlanta, and he was a lineman and would play some receiver, too,” Knighten says. “I thought that was a weird combination. That would be nice to have. I guess it works out perfectly when you are a tight end.”

Knighten was a sophomore; Henry a freshman. Knighten didn’t start at quarterback that season, but he made an impact returning kicks and running special packages on offense.

“I got moved up to the varsity team as a freshman and got to know him a little bit. He was kind of playing all over the field his sophomore year,” Henry says. “I think everyone admired him for being able to play different positions. I got to know him through football and off the field, too.”

The friendship grew the next year when Knighten moved to starting quarterback. “We were friends right away,” Knighten says. “We spent a lot of time together. Quarterbacks and receivers are together a lot, and then we started to hang out off the field.”

Knighten blossomed as the starter, and with help of his 6-foot-5 tight end, the Bruins landed in the Class 4A state championship game after ripping off 12 straight wins following a nonconference home loss to Class 7A Cabot. A loaded Shiloh Christian squad beat the Bruins 61-40. However, a foundation had been laid, and the friends were on their way to making school history.

It started in the summer on the 7on7 circuit when the Bruins won the 7on7 University National Championship in Virginia. The momentum continued into the season when Pulaski Academy enjoyed its most dominant season in school history. An undefeated state championship season included only one really close game, a 38-28 win at Class 6A Lake Hamilton — that was also the only game Pulaski Academy didn’t score at least 40 points.

“Some people think I am crazy saying this, but I think we could have played with anyone in the country,” Kelley says. “I saw some poll where we were ranked No. 18 nationally. We won the 7on7 national championship, and that’s without Fredi being able to run.”

The team scored more than 60 points three times, including a 64-34 blowout out of Cabot when Pulaski Academy led 29-0 in the first quarter before the Panthers even touched the ball, thanks to recovered onside kicks. The title game was never close, with Pulaski Academy blasting Malvern 63-28.

“I think it goes back to that we are all friends,” Henry says. “Everyone on the whole team enjoyed being around each other. We were real close with [the senior class]. It was just a fun year, and to do it with your brothers and some of your good friends is great, going out there every single day and every single game knowing what you are a part of. We were apart of something special. It is something that will always live on [at Pulaski Academy].”

On a team littered with stars and college signees, Knighten was the focal point. Knighten, who racked up more than 6,000 yards of offense and 88 total touchdowns in 2011, was a Parade All-American and earned Arkansas Gatorade Player of the Year honors and the Landers Award, given to the state’s top player.

“He was the man back in the day,” Henry says. “He was the guy that everyone looked upon to make plays and do different things. I think a lot of people looked up to him from what he did.”

Knighten counts Pulaski Academy classmates Jason King, who now is a starting offensive guard at Purdue University, and Dusty Hannahs, a transfer guard on the UA basketball team, as close friends. However, he and Henry had an even closer bond with their positions relying on each other.

“That’s what was big about that last year of his. We weren’t just close on the field, but we were close off the field,” Henry says. “All the guys were really close off the field.”

Even now, as he enters his senior season as a decorated Division I starting quarterback, Knighten basks in the glow of his senior season.

“I always think about it. I have the big championship poster in my room,” Knighten says. “I look at it all of the time and think of the good memories we had. Hunter is a big part of that, too. He was a junior, but he was playing offense and defense and playing special teams on the onside kicks blowing people up. Those are the memories you keep forever.”

PROVING GROUND

While Knighten racked up yards and accolades at Pulaski Academy, his college scholarship offers were minimal. At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, major programs were concerned about his size, even with his blazing 4.5 speed. Only Louisiana Tech University and ASU offered scholarships. Knighten went to Jonesboro with a chip on his shoulder, but the beginning wasn’t easy.

After talk of using him like a utility player as he was as a sophomore in high school, Knighten saw little action and scored just one touchdown. Knighten saw more action his sophomore year, but it wasn’t until the finale that he showed his full potential. Knighten served as the backup to senior Adam Kennedy. Kennedy struggled with injuries late, and Knighten was

inserted into the season final with Western Kentucky University when Kennedy went down. Knighten ran 12 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns, was 11 for 17 passing for 61 yards and two scores in the road loss.

“I think the big game was the Western Kentucky game where Adam did go down," Knighten says. "I went in and got knocked out for a second but came back in. I was like, ‘All right, what do I need to do to help my team win?’ I tried to do as much as I could, but we couldn’t get it done. A lot of people had faith in me after that game. ‘OK, he can make some plays when he needs to.’”

A few weeks later, Knighten had to sub again for Kennedy in the GoDaddy Bowl against Ball State University, but this time, Knighten pulled out the win.

Knighten racked up 212 yards of offense and led the Red Wolves on a three-play, 55-yard drive in the final 1:25 of the game. He was two-for-two passing on the drive, including a 12-yard touchdown strike to Allen Muse to win the game. The drive was reminiscent of his high school days with the efficiency and poise he displayed with a rapid pace.

“That whole experience was mind-blowing,” says Knighten, who earned game MVP honors. “That was actually my first come-from-behind win ever. I never had to do that at PA. I never had to do anything like it, so it was a different experience. After going through it, I loved being in that position. Having all of the pressure on you and having to compete. Having to go out and be the best you can every play. That is the stuff that makes people great. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Joe Montana. Those guys, that is what makes them great. They thrive under that pressure.”

The good news was that Knighten had proven himself as a Division I quarterback. The bad news was Coach Bryan Harsin announced he was returning to Boise State University to become the head coach there. So Knighten had to adjust to another head coach after being recruited to ASU by Gus Malzahn, who left after one season to take the job at Auburn University. University of North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson employed a similar high-octane philosophy to Malzahn and Kelley, so Knighten made a pretty flawless transition with Anderson taking the reins.

Knighten ran for 779 yards, 11 touchdowns, passed for 3,277 yards and 24 scores with just seven interceptions, earning first-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors.

“What it did solidify, if I ever do coach at the college level, I am going to look at more what the kid can do on the field and not his height or weight,” Kelley says. “He’s showing he could play anywhere. He would have had some bigger offers if he wasn’t playing quarterback, if he was playing wide receiver, running back or defensive back. Coaches don’t want a 5-10 quarterback, but he’s proving he can play.”

Knighten didn’t finish the season as well as he had hoped in his return to the GoDaddy Bowl, a 63-44 loss to the University of Toledo. While he passed for 403 yards and five touchdowns, he gave up a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown.

“I think I did all right. I don’t think I had the best year. There are a lot of things I could improve on, but I think that is going to happen every year,” Knighten says. “Even if you throw 100 touchdowns, you aren’t going to be perfect anyway. You are always going to have some things to get better at. That is what I have been trying to do this offseason.”

Knighten’s improvement wasn’t lost on the national pundits. He has been sleeted to several watch lists honoring quarterbacks and offensive players. Sun Belt coaches also named him to the preseason All-Sun Belt team.

“It kind of reminds me of high school a little bit. The first two years, I didn’t do too much, just some special teams and some packages. Then, my junior year, I got to do more things, and then I had a great senior year,” he says. “Hopefully, it works the same way now. I’d be lucky and blessed. I am just going to do the best I can.”

Having the same head coach and offensive coordinator for the first time should help.

“Just watching him in practice, he was good last year, but this year, I think he is going to have a great season in the way he understands the offense and the reads,” McKissic says. “He knows you can’t take sacks on third down. He is going to be even better this year.”

ASU finished 7-6 with its fourth straight bowl appearance. While the team is picked to finish third in the Sun Belt Conference, Knighten is hopeful the Red Wolves can win a conference title. ASU has a chance to show how much the team may have improved when it plays at the University of Southern California in the season opener and hosts the University of Missouri a week later.

“USC is in the Top 10, and Missouri is in the Top 25,” Knighten says. “It is going to be a great experience to go out to the coliseum and experience that. It is going to be great to have Missouri at home. We have some great opportunities. We have some opportunities for some guys to step up and make some big plays and show the country what we can do. If we can go out and have a good showing against those teams; we are definitely going to make some headlines. We just have to go out and stay focused and lock in and not give away the game.”

The first two weeks are also a chance for Knighten to prove he belongs on a big stage.

“I’ve always felt like people have underestimated me, but I like it that way,” he says. “I like people doubting me, and I like people saying I can’t do certain things. It just gives me a bigger urge to prove them wrong.

“It was the same way in high school. People said, ‘He is fast, but he can’t really throw that well.’ I said, ‘All right, I am just going to come out and do better at that,' and ended up on the Parade All-American list with Jameis Winston, Maty Mauk, Dorial Green-Beckham — guys like that. It was a good feeling to prove them wrong. Now, it is the same way, and I have people saying I can’t do this or can’t do this or that. So I am just going out to try to prove them wrong again.”

INSTANT IMPACT

After his junior year at Pulaski Academy, when Henry caught 64 passes for 1,093 yards and 16 touchdowns, the scholarship offers flooded in with most recruiting services tabbing him a four-star prospect among the top five of prep tight ends nationally. More than 20 schools offered scholarships, and it may have been more if he hadn’t committed to UA, where his father played, before his senior season.

Henry capped off a brilliant prep career with with 107 catches for 1,449 yard and 15 touchdowns. Pulaski Academy was unable to win a state title, however, after moving up to Class 5A (the team reached the semifinals).

Henry proved why he was a top prospect, starting seven of 12 games for rebuilding the Hogs under first-year Coach Bret Bielema. Henry caught 28 passes for 409 yards and a team-tying four touchdowns. He was one of just two freshmen included on the Mackey Award Midseason Watch List, which recognizes the top tight ends in the nation.

“It’s so impressive what he did being thrust into playing so early in [the SEC],” says Hogs tight end Coach Barry Lunney Jr. “It wasn’t like he came here midyear. He showed up in June and had limited time to get ready. He caught five balls and played 50 snaps in his first game. That is pretty well, and you could see early on he was at a high level. He handled the challenge quite well.”

In 2014, Henry picked up where he left off, becoming one of the Hogs’s more reliable receivers. He caught 37 passes for 513 yards and two touchdowns. He ranked No. 3 among SEC tight ends in receptions and yards and was one of two tight ends in the league to record a 100-plus yard-receiving game.

“Every year, I see him take a step forward,” UA junior running back Kody Walker says. “He’s a guy that is a hard worker, and he’s a guy that you can trust. I know Hunter’s going to get his job done, and that’s something that you’ve got to have on a team. When guys step up on the field, you’ve got to have trust that they are going to do what they’re supposed to do to get the game won and stuff like that.”

Henry was named to the Coaches All-SEC second team and received an AP All-SEC honorable mention. He was able to emerge as a go-to receiver with very little help. Keon Hatcher, a returning senior, totaled 558 receiving yards, and no other Hogs cracked 400.

With a shortage of weapons in the passing game, Henry was targeted but still managed to make plays. He torched Mississippi State University, which was ranked No. 1 at the time, for 110 yards. He helped put UA in position to tie the game late against the Bulldogs.

“That game showed what kind of a player he is, and he is capable of doing that anytime,” Lunney says. “That was a big stage, and he played very well.”

Still, the Hogs lost that game and didn’t win an SEC game until they beat Louisiana State University in week 10. That win sparked a blowout against the University of Mississippi a week later. The win made the Hogs bowl eligible, and they beat the University of Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl.

“We were so close early on; we were right on the edge,” Henry says. “I think we figured out early on we could compete with anyone. Especially, having Texas A&M on the ropes and losing to ’Bama by one point. We had some opportunities to win, and I think they all carried on throughout the season. It kept getting more and more frustrating. Finally, we went through a bye week before LSU, and we said we need to make it a November to remember. I think we really locked in on what we were doing. We really put a complete game together against LSU, and carried it on to the next week and the rest of the season.”

Henry is optimistic the Hogs will keep the momentum going into this year. “We are going to set the bar high, and I think an SEC championship is our first goal. When you go to the SEC Championship Game, you have a chance to go to the playoffs. Everyone on this team wants to win every single game.”

No matter what measure of success Henry achieves this year, it won’t go to his head. Knighten and Kelley both gush at how humble and hardworking and even keel Henry is, dating back to the days when he burst onto the scene at Pulaski Academy to now, where he is primed to be one of the better tight ends in college football.

“He’s just a genuine guy and just so nice to everybody he sees,” says Brooks Ellis, a UA junior linebacker and one of Henry’s roommates. “He never judges anybody. He is a Christian guy and just goes about his business, does his thing, and he is always having fun and always joking around. He is always telling jokes and making people feel at home. I love being his roommate. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody else. He’s just fun to be around.”

And while Henry shares a house with Ellis, backup quarterback Austin Allen and former Hog defensive back Alex Brignoni, his new friends know all about the first quarterback that he teamed up with.

“If A-State is on TV, he will always go, ‘That’s my boy, Fredi,’ or something like that,” Allen says. “I remember playing against Fredi when I was a junior at Fayetteville. Both those guys are unbelievable talents.”

Ellis and Allen hope they will have their roommate for two more years, but that’s not a given. Another standout season could make Henry’s draft stock rise, which would leave him with a potentially tough decision.

“I’m not thinking about it; I am just taking it one day at a time,” Henry says. “I leave it at that. That might be what people think, but I need to get a lot better. I don’t even want to think about it, really. I just want to think about being in college. Being a kid in college still and focusing on Arkansas football.”

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN

Knighten sits on the bench and watches Henry warm up on the turf with former Pulaski Academy star Tyler Colquitt, who is a backup fullback at UA. Several players from that 2011 Pulaski Academy team will work out together in a bit. It’s not exactly like the “good ol’ days,” but even though he’s on the brink of one of the biggest seasons of his life, Knighten wishes it was.

“I’d like to play one more game here,” Knighten says. “That would be a lot of fun.”

That’s surprising coming from a player who could be one of college football’s surprise stars this season — a player who is starting his season in a few weeks playing in one of college football’s hallowed grounds. Three years away from the campus hasn’t lessened his love for the field, his coach, his teammates, his friends, his big ol’ tight end. If anything, it has made him miss it more. It’s hard to blame him.

“Just having all of those memories with guys that will last forever,” he says. “Things happen in life that you don’t expect, but you always look back and say, ‘I had a great time with me and my friends, and we did some crazy and amazing things.’”

•••

Information for this article was contributed by Evin Demirel.

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