Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The passing of the torch at Arkansas is evident from how often Casey Dick is passing the football.
On the same day former Arkansas tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, the guy who has spent most of his career handing off to those 1,000-yard rushers threw the ball 49 times in the Red-White Game that closed the Razorbacks' spring practice.
Dick's performance reflected how much things have changed at Arkansas under new coach Bobby Petrino. Dick attempted more than 23 passes just three times last season and never has thrown for more than 228 yards in a game. Dick went 25-of-33 for 244 yards in the first half alone Saturday and finished with 404 passing yards.
"It's great," Dick said. "You're out there throwing the ball, what every quarterback likes to do. (You're) running the ball. The whole offense is on your shoulders. It's a lot of pressure, but that's what comes with the nature of the position."
While it's easy to exaggerate the impact of a performance that came against Arkansas' second-string defense, Dick's progress offers hope that the Razorbacks won't take that expected step backward as they make the transition from Houston Nutt's run-oriented offense to Petrino's more balanced scheme.
Arkansas backup quarterback Nathan Dick said his older brother might throw for at least 250 yards every game this fall. "I wouldn't be surprised at all," Nathan Dick said. "I think he'll have that at least."
Casey Dick's improvement this spring might even cause him to win a few more supporters beyond his immediate family. That would represent a refreshing change for a guy who has the misfortune of being sandwiched between former five-star prospects.
He took over as the starting quarterback late in the 2006 season, when Nutt benched Mitch Mustain - who since has transferred to USC. The best fit for Petrino's offense may be Ryan Mallett, a Michigan transfer rated the No. 4 overall prospect in the 2007 recruiting class. Mallett, who didn't play Saturday because of an injured right thumb, must sit out this season under NCAA transfer rules unless he is granted a waiver.
When Arkansas fans aren't wondering what could have been with Mustain or what could be with Mallett, they're often grumbling about who they have running the offense. Dick's teammates say they've heard the complaints while walking around campus.
"Everybody thought, 'Oh, Casey Dick, I hope someone can beat him out,' '' Arkansas wide receiver London Crawford said. "Never did I believe that."
Dick said he's learned to tune out the criticism.
"You hear it, but you don't pay attention to it," he said. "Those people are just out there making comments. You've just got to worry about the people who care about you – your coaches and teammates, who are like your brothers. They'll pick you up and take you where you need to go."
New Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino's track record at Louisville indicates the Razorbacks will have a more balanced offense this season, even though they'll continue to emphasize the run. This chart shows how Arkansas fared on the ground and through the air in former coach Houston Nutt's final seven seasons and how Louisville did in the same categories during Petrino's four-year tenure. It also indicates how often each team ran the ball during those seasons. NCAA rankings in each category are in parentheses. The run/pass ratio measures the percentage of running plays and passing plays during that season.
Dick's inconsistent performances have given plenty of ammunition to his detractors. He went 22-for-60 with four interceptions and only two touchdown passes in the three-game losing streak that ended the 2006 season. Dick followed that up by ranking 62nd in the nation in passing efficiency last season, though it's worth noting that Boston College's Matt Ryan – the first quarterback taken in the NFL Draft – was just one spot higher.
Of course, Arkansas' offense wasn't exactly set up to help a quarterback put up huge numbers. Nutt understandably wanted to get the ball into the hands of McFadden and Jones as often as possible. Sometimes, that meant Dick was on the sideline while McFadden lined up at quarterback.
The plan worked well enough to help Arkansas rank 13th in the nation in scoring last season, but it didn't exactly showcase the quarterback position. Dick rarely threw the ball unless Arkansas was in obvious passing situations.
"I don't think it's fair, but that's the system they had," said Tom Westerberg, who coached Dick at Allen (Texas) High School. "I'm not critiquing their (former) coaching staff, but it's tough for a quarterback to hand the ball off, hand the ball off and hand the ball off, then throw the ball on third-and-12."
Westerberg cited Arkansas' triple-overtime 50-48 upset of eventual national champion LSU as an example. With the Razorbacks trailing 35-28 in the first overtime, McFadden took two snaps at quarterback before Dick entered on third down. Dick kept Arkansas' hopes alive with a fourth-and-10 completion to Peyton Hillis.
Then again, Dick always has had a knack for making the best of a bad circumstance. This is the same guy who injured his back early in his college career and ended up meeting his fiancée, Felicia Davis, who worked at the chiropractor's office. Now, Dick is trying to make the most of an ideal situation.
The well-traveled Petrino had established a reputation as a quarterback guru before his disastrous 2007 season as coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. The former Louisville coach and Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator has tutored Chris Redman, Mark Brunell and Brian Brohm, among others.
Although Petrino's teams ran the ball more often than they passed it all of his four seasons at Louisville, the Cardinals still ranked 13th or better in passing offense each of his final three seasons there. In 2006, Petrino's final season at Louisville, the Cardinals were second in the nation in total offense and fourth in scoring.
BAROMETER OF SUCCESS
Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick hasn't been the Razorbacks' most productive player during his college career, but his performance has gone a long way toward determining whether his team has won. This game-by-game statistical analysis of Dick's career starts shows he performed far better in wins than in losses.
When Arkansas won
When Arkansas lost
"His offense at Louisville, it was unbelievable the way it worked," Dick said. "When you piece it together and figure it out, it's a great offense to be in."
The problem is figuring it out.
While Nutt's offense de-emphasized the importance of the quarterback, Petrino's system goes to the other extreme. Dick understands that the Razorbacks won't move the ball effectively unless he's at his best every Saturday.
"If you see a look and you don't like it, you're able to change the protection and change the whole play if you need to," said Dick, who wants to go into coaching at the end of his college career. "It's all on your shoulders. You need to know what you're doing."
He's doing just fine thus far. Dick threw for 304 yards in the Razorbacks' final scrimmage before going 33-of-49 in the spring game. He threw two touchdown passes with one interception Saturday and led the Red team into the end zone on each of its first two series.
"He's had a good spring," Petrino said. "I've been impressed with his spring. He's worked really hard at understanding the offense. He's worked just as hard at trying to understand the defenses and what the coverages are doing. Now he's trying to put the two together; he's being able to distribute the ball according to the play call, but also according to what the defense is doing."
Arkansas needs Dick to continue building on that momentum this fall. The Razorbacks must replace McFadden and Jones in the backfield, and they don't return a starter in the secondary. With so many new faces on both sides of the ball, Arkansas could struggle to stay afloat in the SEC West race unless Dick improves.
Dick relishes the challenge. His brother has noticed the difference since Petrino's arrival.
"I see a little more pep to him," Nathan Dick said. "He likes this offense a lot."
Dick's teammates like the way he has run Petrino's offense thus far, though the criticism from elsewhere in the state probably won't subside until Dick proves himself in the regular season without McFadden or Jones lining up behind him. Crawford thinks it's only a matter of time before that happens.
"He works hard," said Crawford, who caught eight passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. "When you come out and your coach lets you run the offense, lets you pick out the reads and lets you pick out what you want to do, it's great for him."
It finally could help Dick turn those jeers into cheers.