FAYETTEVILLE — A.J. Derby and Damon Mitchell were throwing passes during Arkansas’ first spring scrimmage last week, participating in the Razorbacks’ five-man competition at quarterback.
One week later, both players were catching passes from the other three.
Derby and Mitchell practiced in new roles during Arkansas’ second 101-play scrimmage in Razorback Stadium on Saturday. Derby lined up at tight end after making his move to the position Tuesday, while Mitchell put in his first full work as a wide receiver and punt returner to cap Arkansas’ third week of spring practice.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said the changes were made after consulting with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. The Razorbacks decided moving forward with Brandon Allen, Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey at the position would be best, leaving Bielema trying to convince Derby and Mitchell to try to help at other positions.
Derby has been open to exploring his new role over the next two weeks.
“He didn’t want to hear last spring,” Bielema said about Derby, who was Arkansas’ backup quarterback last season and started against Rutgers. “He didn’t want to hear it this fall. I don’t think you could find a happier person on this earth right now than A.J. Derby. He’s loving it. Everything is going and it is just the frame of mind.”
Derby, who has joined a group that includes Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle and Alex Voelzke, caught 2 passes for 22 yards and a touchdown Saturday. But he could’ve had more after slipping behind the secondary. Quarterback Brandon Allen threw a deep ball, but the open Derby dropped what would’ve been a 59-yard score.
Still, Bielema believes Derby has fit in well after his first week at tight end.
“I think it’s the first drop he had in team situations,” Bielema said after looking back at Derby’s week. “He just has been catching everything. So hopefully it was just something he had to go through there on that specific play.”
Bielema couldn’t say the same about Mitchell’s willingness to move. He was recruited as a receiver and defensive back out of high school, but chose Arkansas largely for the chance to play quarterback. So the possibility of sliding to a new position has been difficult for Mitchell to accept, according to Bielema.
“To say that he has embraced a position change would probably not be correct,” Bielema said. “I think he’s very adamant about playing quarterback. We’d let him stay there. I told him he could stay at quarterback if he wanted to. Again, I encouraged him to try wide receiver for two weeks and see where it goes.”
Bielema said he initially gave Mitchell the option of trying either wide receiver, running back or defensive back this week. He told Mitchell the best fit would be at safety, but the easiest transition would be wide receiver. So Mitchell spent time catching passes during Tuesday’s practice, was working as a quarterback Thursday, but shed his green jersey and scrimmaged at wide receiver Saturday.
Mitchell caught punts during the scrimmage and also got involved on offense, catching a screen pass and turning it into a 28-yard gain. He lined up in the backfield as well and got two carries, rushing for 10 yards on his attempts.
Bielema said Mitchell looked “exceptional” with the ball in his hands.
“If Duwop will wrap his arms around it, hug it up and kiss it, I think it would work very, very well,” Bielema said about the position switch. “If not, it’s not going to work. I will help him wherever he needs to go or whatever he wants to do. I just want him to have success and that is the part that he has to understand.”
It’s clear Arkansas is pressing forward at quarterback with Brandon Allen, Austin Allen and Peavey. Brandon Allen received with the first-team offense Saturday, while Austin Allen and Peavey shared the second-team work in the scrimmage.
Bielema said Brandon Allen continued to solidify his place as Arkansas’ starter despite some challenges Saturday. He completed 17 of 25 passes for 157 yards with 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Allen’s first interception came on a pass picked off by cornerback Carroll Washington. The second came on his next throw, when defensive end Deatrich Wise tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage that was caught by linebacker Brooks Ellis.
But Allen also threw back-to-back touchdown passes in situational work inside the 10-yard line, connected with Keon Hatcher and Jared Cornelius for scores. Then he led the offense on a 13-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Derby. Allen finished the scrimmage with a 20-yard touchdown to Kendrick Payne, wrapping up an eight-play, 54-yard scoring drive.
“I think BA is our No. 1 quarterback,” Bielema said. “That kind of separated itself from the time we had our last game to the time of our first two weeks of practice. I just felt BA really has to compete against the rest of the SEC.
“There isn’t anybody at our program now that is to his level. So really trying to stress him and make him understand that. … I want to really try to press him.”
Peavey, meanwhile, enjoyed more scrimmage success than Austin Allen. A week after going 3-for-3 with limited reps, Peavey was 4-for-6 with 49 yards Saturday.
He did make a mistake late, throwing a pass intercepted by TQ Coleman.
Austin Allen completed 5 of 10 passes for 39 yards, throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to fullback Patrick Arinze. Quarterbacks were off limits to contact, but Arkansas credited the defense with seven sacks when Allen was on the field.
“If you were playing a game tomorrow, Austin would have the edge just because he’s said it, he’s talked it,” Bielema said when asked who had the edge for the second-team job. “He’s been in the huddle a little bit more. Doesn’t obviously have a lot of experiences. But Rafe is a football junkie. He’s a kid that learns very well. He can throw the football. You can see that. I would say that’s kind of a day-by-day thing. Austin really just has an edge because of time spent here.”
Bielema said both quarterbacks will continue to grow with more repetitions in a three-man group over the next two weeks. Bielema said Derby and Mitchell will grow at their new positions as well if they’re receptive to the change.
He was an assistant at Iowa when Dallas Clark was a linebacker. Clark didn’t fit on defense and moved to tight end, where he went on to have a impressive NFL career.
Bielema also had successful position switches with Chris Maragos, who moved from wide receiver to safety and won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. Travis Beckum, who signed with Seattle earlier this winter, also began his Wisconsin career as a linebacker before moving to tight end.
“We know what players need at these positions, but sometimes they just don’t want to hear it,” Bielema said. “Sometimes quarterbacks, as we all know, are very, very intelligent, and they think that they know everything and sometimes they’re resistant to change. But I think it’s coming around.
“We’ll see it for two weeks and see where it goes.”