FAYETTEVILLE — Quarterback Brandon Mitchell said this was his plan all along.
He volunteered to move to wide receiver in 2012 to get on the field with Tyler Wilson entrenched as Arkansas’ starting quarterback. He wanted to play somewhere after watching from the sideline for most of his first three seasons with the program. So Mitchell understood the consequences of stepping away from the position — outside of a few practice reps and the Alabama game — and what it meant for 2013.
“It was clearly explained to me that if I wanted to play receiver (in 2012) I would have to prove myself again at quarterback,” Mitchell said. “I knew what I was stepping into and it was something I happily accepted.”
The coaching staff has obviously changed, but Mitchell’s goal remains the same as he prepares for his senior season. He wants to be Arkansas’ starting quarterback and is competing with sophomore Brandon Allen for the position this spring.
Arkansas’ practices have been closed to the public, so dissecting every repetition and every throw has been impossible for all but the coaching staff. But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has made it clear he’s not a “quarterback-by-committee guy” and intends to find one starter to lead the offense next season.
Receiver Mekale McKay said four practices have proven the competition is far from decided.
“Nobody is No. 1. Nobody is No. 2,” McKay said. “You know, it’s every man for themselves. They all throw bad balls and they all throw good balls. It’s hard to compare them, but they’re all great. They all want the starting spot.”
Arkansas spent the first three practices getting every quarterback ample work as spring drills began. But the Razorbacks were expected to start tailoring their practice time to the top three – Allen, Mitchell and walk-on A.J. Derby - on Tuesday.
Bielema said Razorbacks are looking for three traits from the competitors.
First, he expects his starting quarterback to manage the team in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. He said Arkansas’ quarterback must be able to “execute the play” as well in the new offense. Third, Bielema said Arkansas’ quarterback must make an impression by being “triumphant in the most difficult times.”
The staff is evaluating every aspect of playing the position this spring.
“If there’s one thing I would get across to our quarterbacks in general, is I need to have an urgency out of them to become great,” Bielema said after Arkansas’ third practice. “If the quarterback position isn’t a junkie, if he’s not a guy who’s banging on your door every day to be learning, we’re not going to get where we need to be.
“So that particular position in general just needs a whole lot of urgency.”
That mentality at the position was expected under the previous staff. Former head coach Bobby Petrino and assistants Garrick McGee and Paul Petrino demanded plenty from their quarterbacks on and off the field the past five seasons.
It helped produce the SEC’s top passing attack and some talented throwers in Wilson and Ryan Mallett. The offense probably won’t look the same under Bielema and Chaney, but Allen believes the pressure remains the same.
“Definitely just being on top of your game every day you go to practice,” Allen said when asked what it will take to win the job. “Knowing what you’re doing out there and making sure you make as little mistakes as possible. Being the quarterback you’re known for … You’ve got to be the smartest one out there. I think learning this whole new offense shows who is the best prepared and who can make the plays.”
Allen was Arkansas’ second-team quarterback with Mitchell at receiver last season and struggled in his time on the field. He completed 21 of 49 passes for 186 yards with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions, logging most of his time in the Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama losses with Wilson sidelined because of a concussion.
Allen wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything, though, believing it helped break him into live game situations. He believes it will help him now as he competes with Mitchell (2-for-8 for 45 yards and a touchdown in 2012) this spring.
“There’s obviously more competition and everyone wants to be the No. 1 guy,” Allen said. “That just fuels me to try to keep my game on top of everybody else’s. I’m not going to be outworked. …. That’s something I take personally.”
Neither quarterback has been flawless through four days, according to the coaches.
But who would be with a new system and new terminology being installed?
The process has been slow at times. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the entire group was rusty Tuesday. But he also sees progress and effort.
“They are both getting their reps and doing a nice job and have been on the field a little bit more and have a little bit more understanding,” Chaney said after Tuesday’s practice. “I think they will compete with each other.”
Allen and Mitchell are also helping each other – both on the field and in the meeting room — as they try to learn the new offense this spring. Allen said making sure both quarterbacks understand what is going on will only make each other better.
Mitchell said it can be tricky at times. For instance, he caught himself using terminology from previous years in the huddle on a handful of occasions. But it’s all part of the process as both quarterbacks try to make an impression.
“Competition makes everybody better,” Mitchell said. “That’s something I had to go through competing with Tyler. It’s the same thing right now with me and B.A.”