FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema had a stern message last month for anyone grumbling about Brandon Allen’s ability to lead the Razorbacks.
There will be no quarterback debate during Arkansas’ preseason camp.
“Just sit back and relax because it isn’t going to change,” Bielema said.
The Razorbacks have plenty to figure out as they try to recover from last season’s disappointments when practices begin Monday. But Bielema and his staff have made it clear the past few weeks auditioning starting quarterbacks will not be one of the topics on the agenda because Allen is entrenched at the position.
The junior, who struggled with injuries and accuracy during his first season as a starter, has Arkansas’ confidence despite completing just 49.6 percent of his passes for 1,552 yards, 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2014. He remained on top of the depth chart throughout a spring competition and the Razorbacks have gained more faith in the returning starter’s abilities with his work this summer.
“BA has gotten way better,” Arkansas safety Alan Turner said. “His confidence, he’s become a leader and also just becoming a better student of the game. He’s making his reads faster and making better throws. I know he got hurt last year and that kind of hurt him. But I’m really excited to see BA (this season).”
There’s no doubt Allen and the Arkansas offense couldn’t live up to expectations last season. The unraveling came when Allen suffered a separated shoulder in early September. He only missed one game, but the Razorbacks couldn’t recover.
Bielema has since revealed the severity of Allen’s injury, explaining how it severely limited his practice time the rest of the season. The struggles carried over to Saturdays. And with the struggles came mountains of criticism.
“It’s very hard and people don’t have an appreciation for that,” Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney said of the injury. “I went through it. My sophomore year, I had to get injections in my AC joint for 4-5 weeks straight on game days just to be able to play, and it affected me greatly. And so here I am on the staff watching him go through whatever the treatment was … The fact was he wasn’t healthy.”
Allen showed no carryover last spring. Healthy, Allen displayed more confidence and command of Arkansas’ offense during practices. The Razorbacks were supposed to have an open competition, but Allen never moved out of his first-team spot.
Still, the spring didn’t completely ease the concerns about an Allen-led Arkansas offense because of what happened in the final practice. Allen and the starters struggled in the first half of the Red-White Game. He finished 12 of 21 for 108 yards with a touchdown and interception in a less-than-impressive showing.
Bielema said it didn’t alter Arkansas’ confidence in Allen, though.
“The kid buys in,” Bielema said. “He’s been a tremendous worker. What we see as coaches is a lot different from what the outside world, media and fans see, it’s the things we know are reality. You’re talking about Jim Chaney, a guy that knows quarterback play, has seen great quarterbacks, understands quarterbacks and he’s very, very excited. That to me is proof in itself that we’re on the right path.”
Allen spent some time in the offseason working at IMG Academy with Chris Weinke, a former Heisman Trophy winner, according to reports. He has made an impression on teammates with his maturity and leadership during summer workouts as well.
“Brandon Allen has done an incredible job of growing into his leadership role this year,” Arkansas offensive lineman Brey Cook said. “This summer, especially, he’s really come out of his shell and become a guy that the whole team, not just the offense, really looks up to. He makes those calls that need to be made. He’s able to lead with authority. That’s something that he’s done very well.”
There’s no doubt Allen’s performance will be vital to Arkansas’ success in 2014.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said last week you’d have to be “fool to say the quarterback position isn’t pretty important.” So he acknowledged the quarterback must perform, but should be aided by more weapons around him. There’s more familiarity with the system as well as Bielema’s second preseason camp begins.
“I think he knows what he’s doing better than anybody else right now,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “I think he’s everything you want. He’s bubbling. He’s bouncing around. He’s excited about camp getting ready to start and I’m excited for him. From a coach’s standpoint, 52 years old and 30 years into this business, it’s always fun to watch these kids when they’re like Brandon.
“When they didn’t have the season they wanted to have and how quick they can come back and rebound from that and the opportunities that await them.”
Allen will get a chance to prove it throughout preseason practice.
There’s no debate: Allen is Arkansas’ starting quarterback as camp begins.
“He just kind of kept his mouth shut, got better and (went) to work,” Lunney said about Allen’s summer. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that our football team looks to him as our leader. So, I think we’re in a real healthy spot with him now.”