MOBILE, Ala. — Scouts from five different NFL teams circled Jeremy Sprinkle as the sun set over Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Tuesday. The questions were uncomfortable. So were the answers.
“I went to check out…” the former Arkansas tight end said, and the scouts started scribbling on their notepads. Their bosses all will want to know exactly why Sprinkle got sent home from the Belk Bowl before the Razorbacks played Virginia Tech. They’ll get their explanation, but it likely will lead to more questions. Come draft day, Sprinkle will have to hope a mistake he made in late December won’t cost him millions.
The 6’ 5”, 256-pound Sprinkle is the best tight end on the North team. He’ll be compared this week against the South team’s O.J. Howard (Alabama) and Evan Ingram (Ole Miss). He’ll also be compared throughout draft season against Michigan’s Jake Butt, Miami’s David Njoku and Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges. Sprinkle plays a position of need for nearly every NFL team. He’s a capable blocker, a big target in the red zone, a solid route-runner and a reliable pass-catcher. But he also has one negative on his resume that could cost him in the draft even if his physical tools make him one of the best prospects at his position.
On Dec. 27, members of the Arkansas and Virginia Tech teams were given 90 minutes to select $450 worth of merchandise from Belk, the department store that sponsors the bowl game in Charlotte, N.C. After Sprinkle checked out with items equaling the allotted amount, he put an additional $260 worth of merchandise in his bag. The items were four shirts, two wallets, socks and a pair of boxer shorts. Sprinkle was caught and cited by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police for shoplifting.
He had to explain that to scouts on Tuesday. “They obviously want to know about it,” Sprinkle said. “They want to know my side of the story. All I can do is be upfront and honest.” So what does he tell them? “I went to check out some items,” Sprinkle said. “I had my shopping bag with me still. I was just putting extra stuff in my bag.”
Those shirts and wallets could cost Sprinkle far more than he imagined. After he explained the Belk incident to the scouts, they wanted to know what other skeletons they might find. Sprinkle had no other publicized incidents at Arkansas, so it’s possible he made one very foolish mistake. But now he has to prove that he can be trusted to a team that would invest millions in him.
The NFL is full of players who have bounced back from mistakes. Defensive end Noah Spence was booted from Ohio State in 2014 for Ecstasy use. He played the 2015 season at Eastern Kentucky. He had a great Senior Bowl week last year and was brutally honest with coaches and scouts when they asked about his issues. He wound up a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was one of the NFL’s best young pass rushers as a rookie.
Sprinkle probably will get a chance to rebound from his mistake because he has shown he can play as a flex tight end, an attached tight end and in an H-back role. He averaged 14.4 yards a catch as a junior playing the Razorbacks’ more freeform role. As a senior, he replaced second-rounder Hunter Henry as the Hogs’ in-line tight end. Sprinkle’s receiving average dropped to 11.5, but he became a better blocker. Like Butt, Howard and Njoku, he played in an offense that resembles the offenses NFL teams run. His learning curve should be short. “I’ll be a great mismatch for them—a tight end that can stretch the field vertically,” Sprinkle said. “I can run crisp routes, but I’ll also stick my head in there and get physical. I’ll also play special teams.”
Sprinkle is saying all the right things. At Tuesday’s practice, he looked the part of an NFL tight end. He’ll have to spend the next few months explaining away a lapse in judgment, but if he continues on this path, he has a chance to gain back some of what he lost when he took his shopping spree too far.
“It hurt me a lot not to play in that game with my teammates,” Sprinkle said. “I’m just trying to get past it and just think about the future.”