April 22, 2009

Arkansas hopes it finally has its elite quarterback

Some think quarterback often has been a problem area at Arkansas.

But before accepting a blanket statement like that, let's consider some facts.

• Just four years ago, Razorbacks quarterback Matt Jones was taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Then again, he was selected as a wide receiver.

• Clint Stoerner passed for more than 2,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Of course, there was that unfortunate fumble against Tennessee in '98.

• Just three years ago, Arkansas signed one of the most highly touted quarterback prospects in the country. But Mitch Mustain now is at USC and apparently running third string.

• Ron Calcagni had a solid pro career. But it was in Canada.

• Joe Ferguson starred in the NFL in the 1970s.

• Last season's starter, Casey Dick, threw more interceptions than touchdown passes.

• No Arkansas quarterback ever has passed for 3,000 yards in a season.

OK, so quarterback has been a problem a big problem. But if this spring's performance is any indication, the Razorbacks just may have a big solution.

Big-armed sophomore Ryan Mallett, a 6-foot-7, 248-pound transfer from Michigan, is back home in Arkansas, back in the huddle and hoping to get the Razorbacks back to their winning ways.

Mallett was a five-star prospect coming out of Texarkana (Texas) High, which is about three hours from Arkansas' campus. In a scrimmage in early April, he passed for 360 yards and five touchdowns. In last week's spring game, he was 15-of-26 for 233 yards and an interception. He's locked in a competition for the starting job with redshirt freshman Tyler Wilson, who passed for 301 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino indicated that Mallett has an edge over Wilson, who played strictly in a shotgun offense in high school.

"Ryan does a great job understanding what we want to do," Petrino said. "He operates in and out of the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. As long as his footwork is right and he sets right, he's a very accurate passer. He has a strong arm, and he's learning how to control it and make difficult throws.

"Tyler needs to continue to learn how to operate the huddle and operate the line of scrimmage. He's doing a better job with his technique and footwork."

Mallett is just glad to be competing after sitting out a year following his transfer.

"It's great to be back," he said. "I'm still learning every day. It's a process to grasp the offense. But I keep learning and I feel OK. I think I have a good chance [to start]. I have to play to the best of my ability."

Skeptics will look at an underwhelming freshman season at Michigan and question his ability. Mallett completed fewer than half of his passes and threw for seven touchdowns and five interceptions as Chad Henne's backup in 2007.

He's also not mobile. Thus, as a classic dropback passer, he doubted he had much of a future at Michigan when Rich Rodriguez replaced Lloyd Carr as coach and brought the spread offense to Ann Arbor.

The move might prove to be a blessing. Mallett has had a year to mature and work in Petrino's offense, where quarterbacks typically have flourished.

When Petrino was coaching Louisville, Stefon LeFors passed for 3,145 yards in '03 and 2,596 in '04. Brian Brohm threw for 2,883 yards in '05 and 3,049 in '06. Last season under Petrino, Dick passed for 2,586 yards, which was almost 1,000 more than his previous best. Assuming Mallett emerges as the starter, he likely would have a great chance to become Arkansas' first 3,000-yard passer.

The Razorbacks have a stable of able young receivers led by tight end D.J. Williams. Williams had 58 catches for 699 yards a year ago, and Mallett-to-Williams could be among the nation's top pass-catch combinations in '09.

"He's a tough, tough guy," Mallett said. "He has great hands and runs great routes. One guy never brings him down. It always takes two, three or four."

Williams seems equally impressed with Mallett.

"You knew coming in what kind of talent he had," Williams said. "He's accurate, strong and has a lot of leadership skills. He has a good field presence."

With five other offensive starters and nine defensive starters returning, they're confident Arkansas can bounce back from last season's disappointing 5-7 record. Much of their optimism stems from a solid finish last season.

The Hogs went 2-4 in the second half of the season, but three losses were by three points or less and they closed the year with a come-from-behind 31-30 victory over LSU.

"I can tell you when we bonded," Williams said. "It was at LSU with two minutes and 14 seconds left on the clock. It was the first time as an individual I felt we all came together as a true team."

That team will be better with improved quarterback play.

"The whole situation worked out for the best," Mallett said. "Arkansas has given me a chance to be successful. I have a great coach, I'm home. It's a great feeling.

"I look forward to running out in front of the crowd. It's been a long time since I've been in a game."

Don't move the Hall

Dallas is my hometown. I love Dallas. I also love college football. But those two loves are best kept separate.

A group that includes millionaire T. Boone Pickens and NFL Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Roger Staubach is trying to convince the National College Football Hall of Fame to relocate to the Dallas area from South Bend, Ind.

"This is a great football city," Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert said last week. "Dallas would be a great place for it."

I'll agree Dallas is a great football city. But it's a great pro football city.

Sure, it hosts the Cotton Bowl (which is moving to Arlington) and the annual Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma. But other than that, the city's only connection to college football is SMU.

Notre Dame conjures thoughts of Knute Rockne, The Four Horsemen, The Gipper and "Rudy." SMU conjures thoughts of probation.

Dallas definitely has advantages. It's a warm-weather climate and its population should ensure more traffic to the shrine. And with several college programs scheduling games at the soon-to-be-opened new Cowboys stadium, perhaps fans attending those games would make a point to visit the Hall of Fame.

But the College Football Hall of Fame needs to be in a college football town, not a pro football city.

The Edge

This week, it's Illinois vs. Pittsburgh, at the request of reader Cameron Skelding of River Forest, Ill.

Each week, we'll match two teams to determine which has the edge in various categories. Got a matchup you want to see? Send it to olin@rivals.com and we'll work on it.

Illinois vs. Pittsburgh
1. Head to head
Illinois leads the all-time series 6-2
Edge: Illinois
2. Former running backs with great nicknames
Illinois: Red Grange, "The Galloping Ghost."
Pittsburgh: Craig "Ironhead" Heyward
Edge: Illinois.
3. Former players-turned-Chicago Bears legends
Illinois: Linebacker Dick Butkus
Pittsburgh: Tight end Mike Ditka
Edge: Pittsburgh. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Both are among the best ever at their positions. But Ditka also won a Super Bowl as the Bears' coach.
4. Former players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Illinois: Butkus, Grange, George Halas, Bobby Mitchell, Ray Nitschke
Pittsburgh: Ditka, Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, Joe Schmidt
Edge: Illinois. Not only do the Illini have more, but they have Halas.
5. Former students-turned-sports moguls
Illinois: Jerry Colangelo, the president and CEO of the NBA's Phoenix Suns and managing general partner of Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks.
Pittsburgh: Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks
Edge: Illinois. Colangelo actually earned a degree in Champaign. Cuban attended Pittsburgh for one year, then transferred to Indiana.
6. Contributors to society
Pittsburgh: Dr. Jonas Salk. As head of the University of Pittsburgh's Virus Research Lab, he developed a vaccine for polio in 1955.
Illinois: Publisher Hugh Hefner, class of '49, started Playboy magazine in 1953.
Edge: Pittsburgh. Salk's vaccine saved thousands of lives. As for Playboy I only read the articles.
7. Iconic coaches
Illinois: Robert Zuppke was one of the most creative coaches of his day (think Mike Leach) and led the Illini to seven Big Ten championships in 29 seasons from 1913-41.
Pittsburgh: Jock Sutherland coached the Panthers from 1924-1938. In that period, they went 111-20-12 and never had a losing season.
Edge: Even
8. Former coaches that left for Texas
Illinios: John Mackovic left for Texas in 1992 and went 41-28-2 there. He coached the Longhorns to the first Big 12 championship. But there also was a 66-3 loss to UCLA.
Pittsburgh: Jackie Sherrill became college football's highest-paid coach when he left for Texas A&M in 1982. He went 52-28-1 at A&M and won three Southwest Conference championships.
Edge: Pittsburgh. Sherrill still is revered by most Aggies. Mackovic is largely reviled by Texas fans.
9. First-round draft choices
Pittsburgh: 23 (Most recently OT Jeff Otah by Carolina in 2008).
Illinois: 17 (Most recently RB Rashard Mendenhall by Pittsburgh 2008).
Edge: Pittsburgh.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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