FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen knew he was going to have to fight for his starting job after the offense struggled in 2013.
But Allen said last month he embraced the challenge. He welcomed the competition, which included his younger brother, Austin, and early enrollee Rafe Peavey. The junior planned to use Arkansas’ 15 spring practices as a chance to prove he belongs under center when the Razorbacks open the season at Auburn in August.
He made a strong case during Arkansas’ 101-play scrimmage inside Razorback Stadium on Saturday. Allen completed 17 of 20 passes for 247 yards with a touchdown and interception, working exclusively with the first-team offense.
Allen’s only mistake came on his final pass of the scrimmage, which was intercepted by Arkansas safety Alan Turner. But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said it didn’t overshadow Allen’s performance after six spring practices.
“I didn’t look at the numbers before I came in here, but the No. 1 thing that stood out to me in practice No. 1 is that he looks different,” Bielema said. “He looks different physically. He plays different. He has got so much composure. What I love there — not that I wanted to see it — but when we had a couple of guys jump offsides he really let the huddle have an awareness of what we needed to do and what was expected. You like to have your quarterback step up in that fashion.”
Allen is trying to bounce back from a rough sophomore season, which was marred by a nagging shoulder injury and unimpressive play. The quarterback started 11 of 12 games for the Southeastern Conference’s worst passing offense, throwing for 1,552 yards with 13 touchdown and 10 interceptions.
The Razorbacks have supported Allen and believed a healthy shoulder would make a difference, but they opened the competition this spring. So Austin Allen, Peavey, Damon Mitchell and AJ Derby — last season’s No. 2 quarterback — are vying for playing time as Arkansas works to improve its passing offense.
Bielema said Allen’s experience has set him apart from the rest so far.
“You can’t replace experience,” Bielema said. “To be able to say he started 11 games and, although they weren’t obviously the results that we wanted, I think that dynamic of just being in huddle, paying the consequences of wins and losses, success and failures - you can’t put a value on that.”
Derby, who started one game last season, completed 8 of 13 passes for 145 yards with a touchdown and interception against the second-team offense during Saturday’s scrimmage. Austin Allen completed 5 of 10 passes for 69 yards.
Mitchell (3-for-6, 33 yards) and Peavey (3-for-3, 36 yards) earned third-team work.
Derby’s performance was his best scrimmage as a Razorback, but Bielema indicated Austin Allen may be closing in on the senior for the No. 2 spot.
“I think that Austin is making progress with every practice,” Bielema said. “He’s a kid that flourishes in a game-like situation. He’s got a nice arm. AJ has experience on him, but that gap is beginning to tighten. Whether or not he’s passed him or not, I’ll leave that up to Coach Chaney. We’ll have a discussion after our film.”
All three quarterbacks had help from Arkansas’ receiving corps, which struggled last season. The Razorbacks scrimmaged without Demetrius Wilson (held out for precautionary reasons), Eric Hawkins (head injury) and D’Arthur Cowan (concentrating on academics), but showed still more big-play potential Saturday.
There were 11 pass plays of 20 yards or more Saturday against a secondary Bielema believes has shown plenty of growth as well since last season. In fact, he rated the receivers and defensive backs as the most improved units in the offseason.
“I thought we caught the ball as well as we have since I’ve been here as far as guys just throwing and catching, which goes a long way,” Bielema said. “Guys getting open and being able to catch it and advance it a little bit.”
Tight end Hunter Henry (4 catches, 91 yards) turned in the biggest play of the scrimmage, catching a 67-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Allen. Receiver Drew Morgan caught a scrimmage-high 5 passes for 109 yards. Newcomers Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister combined to catch 7 passes for 103 yards, while tight end Jeremy Sprinkle had 3 catches for 73 yards.
Running back Jonathan Williams rushed for seven yards in limited work, while Alex Collins had eight carries for 38 yards. It included a 25-yard run on his final attempt.
Quarterbacks were off limits to contact, but the defense was credited with 11 sacks during the scrimmage. Defensive linemen JaMichael Winston and Tevin Beanum each had two sacks. Defensive end Deatrich Wise had a scrimmage-high 9 tackles.
The defense also forced three turnovers in its first scrimmage under new coordinator Robb Smith. Turner’s interception was the only one forced by the first-team offense. Linebacker Daunte Carr intercepted Derby early in the scrimmage, while safety De’Andre Coley forced a fumble on a big collision with walk-on running back Connor McPherson on the final play of the scrimmage.
“I wanted to really stress to our guys how one play can change momentum,” Bielema said after calling up his team immediately after the turnover to wrap up the practice. “Coley came flying in there and obviously the ball was loose on a big hit. You saw that defensive reaction. So I pointed out to our players.”
The scrimmage wrapped up Arkansas’ second week of spring practice, leaving three weeks remaining until the Red-White game.
Arkansas has eight practices — which includes other scrimmage opportunities — remaining until the spring game. So there are plenty of opportunities to make an impression before the summer begins. But Saturday was a sign it may be hard for any other quarterback to climb ahead of Allen into the starting spot.
“He really feels good about where he’s throwing the ball,” Bielema said. “And there’s a certain amount to be said for a quarterback who believes when he throws the ball on time, in rhythm, on target it’s going to be caught and good things can happen.”