FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney wasn’t looking for much. He just wanted his new quarterback to be open and honest with him.
So when Chaney asked Brandon Allen what kind of things he liked in the playbook, he expected examples. Instead, he got a stock answer: Everything.
“That’s what young quarterbacks do because they really don’t know a damn thing about anything,” Chaney said earlier this month. “That’s what they’re saying when they like everything. It means you haven’t thought enough about it yet to know really what you’re doing. So if anything, just provoking thought about the game of football is what we had to get to and we’ve done that. Now, we’re rolling.”
The communication – and working relationship – between two figures who will be key to Arkansas’ success this season has grown immensely from those first few days of preseason practice, when a sophomore quarterback and first-year coordinator needed time to feel each other out. Now, they’re confident their comfort level with one another will lead to big things for an Arkansas offense that is undergoing a seismic shift from the pass-happy attack under Bobby Petrino.
Chaney will call the plays for the Hogs when the season opens against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. Allen’s job is to execute them. The amount of success is to be determined, but Allen said one thing is certain: He has faith in his coach.
“He definitely knows his offense,” Allen said, referencing Chaney’s past at places like Purdue and Tennessee. “He put up a lot of points, especially at Tennessee. So he’s proven that his system works and there are things he brings to this offense that are proven to work. So when you look at the past and see what he’s done, that puts a lot of confidence in you to believe in him and what he’s got to bring to you.”
Getting there didn’t happen overnight.
Chaney was the first to admit it, but quickly added he didn’t expect Allen to mesh with him immediately after being in a different system for two years.
Chaney – who coached Drew Brees at Purdue and Tyler Bray at Tennessee — brought ideas and philosophies to Arkansas when he arrived with former Tennessee offensive line coach Sam Pittman. Teaching them to Allen and getting the young quarterback to believe in them was his job as Arkansas’ offensive coordinator.
“You’ll take a new job you don’t just blend with your boss immediately,” Chaney said.. “You kind of walk on egg shells until you figure out the direction he wants to take you. I wanted him to run on those egg shells and he was comfortable walking on them. Eventually we just kind of swept them all away and took off together.”
Chaney and Allen believe that happened midway through spring practice. Allen, who was competing with Brandon Mitchell for the starting job at the time, had struggled at the start of drills. But eventually his confidence grew.
Allen believes Chaney’s approach to coaching the position played a big role. While Chaney can draw up X’s and O’s and get onto quarterbacks with the best of them, it didn’t take long for Allen to realize he had a great sense of humor, too.
Allen said the offensive coordinator knows how to lighten the mood. Chaney typically walks into the position meeting room with a joke. If he doesn’t have one, he asks his quarterbacks to tell one. He’ll poke fun at players. Or himself.
“He wants you to know the playbook inside and out, that’s for sure, like any other coach,” Allen said. “But he wants you to be relaxed around him. He says he can’t read minds. He wishes he could, but he can’t read minds. So you’ve got to be able to open up and talk to him. Certain plays you like, you don’t like. Things like that.”
It has all improved the communication between coach and player.
“I probably took a week or so, really, for me to just be able to open up and talk to him about anything about the offense,” Allen said. “Things I didn’t understand. Things I needed more explaining, more help with. So once I was able to open up and talk to him about any of that, our offense and our relationship started clicking.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema noticed. In fact, he pointed out in July how well his offensive coordinator and quarterback had meshed by the end of the spring.
It’s something that has continued through preseason practices.
“What I was really excited to watch was the growth of coach Chaney with Brandon Allen,” Bielema said at SEC Media Days in July. “Brandon understanding how Jim works. What the teaching skill is. The methods. And how they kind of interact.”
Arkansas will find out how much it pays off as Allen moves into the season.
He played in five games last fall, but the experiences weren’t enjoyable. He was the quarterback under center for Arkansas’ second-half collapse against Louisiana-Monroe. Allen also split time with Mitchell the next week, when Alabama beat Arkansas 52-0 and handed the Razorbacks one of their worst SEC losses.
Allen — whose father, Bobby Allen, is a former Arkansas assistant and the current director of high school and NFL relations — said he learned from the struggles. He also believes Arkansas’ emphasis on a run-first, balanced attack will pay off.
“It’s been good for me,” Allen said. “It’s been exciting. I go into every day knowing that he’s got certain things that he’s going to bring to the table. Coach Bielema’s got certain things he wants in the offense. So them just combining their philosophies and bringing them together is going to be a good thing for us.”
This could be just the start of a long relationship as well.
Allen has three years of eligibility remaining as he begins his redshirt sophomore season. Chaney is in the first year of a contract the stretches to June 30, 2016.
For now, Allen knows what Chaney expects at the position. Chaney knows what Allen likes and dislikes. It took a little while to get used to each other, but both are confident they’re on the same page as they head into the 2013 season.
“I think he trusts me, and I trust him, to be honest with one another. That honest dialogue is so critical for that position,” Chaney said. “So I feel real comfortable with he and I — our relationship — now as we approach the season.
“Every day I learn more about him and I think he learns more about me. Some things he likes about me, some things he don’t. I tell him every time there are things about you I don’t care much for either. But I sure enjoy the young man. As a human being, he’s a good kid and I look forward to working with him for a lot of years.”
A Closer Look At … QUARTERBACKS
Best of the Bunch: Brandon Allen — The sophomore watched and waited behind Tyler Wilson for two years, but gets his chance to run an offense that will feature the run game much more in 2013. Allen has impressed since being named the starter out of spring drills, looking very comfortable in his role. The Razorbacks are confident it will carry over to game day as he takes the reins of Jim Chaney’s offense.
Watch Out For: AJ Derby — The former Iowa quarterback benefitted most from Brandon Mitchell’s departure last spring, moving to No. 2 on the depth chart. He maintains that role over freshmen Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell entering the season. Coach Bret Bielema said it hasn’t simply been by default, believing Derby has improved plenty and earned the job this preseason.
Biggest Strength: Arkansas has its unquestioned starter at the position entering the season in Allen. Mitchell’s departure helped the Hogs avoid a potential two-quarterback dilemma. There’s no debate Allen has been the Razorbacks’ best since Bielema’s arrival and players have looked to him as their leader since the summer.
Biggest Question: The Razorbacks don’t have much experience on the quarterback depth chart. Allen threw 49 passes in five appearances last season. Derby played in nine games at Iowa, completing three passes. Allen and Mitchell are true freshmen. Will the inexperience prove costly when the Razorbacks need a big play?
Projected Starter: Brandon Allen, So., (21 of 49, 186 yards, TD, 3 INT in 2012)
Other Contributors: AJ Derby, Jr., (149 of 321, 1,936 yards, 22 TD at Coffeyville Community college in 2012), Austin Allen, Fr., (N/A), Damon Mitchell, Fr. (N/A)
That Figures: 4 — Consecutive seasons in which an Arkansas quarterback has thrown for more than 3,000 yards. Ryan Mallett had a pair of 3,000-yard seasons in 2009 and 2010. Tyler Wilson followed his lead in 2011 and 2012. Topping that mark may be a tall task for Allen, who is running an offense built around its ground game.
Quotable: “His mom and dad have raised him in all the right ways. I think he’s a football junkie, obviously, with his pops being around the game as long as he has. It’s important to him. He’s grown up a Razorback. I know that’s something that you can never put a price tag on.” — Bielema on QB Brandon Allen