FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas hired the head of its football program on Dec. 4, but since spring practices began, coach Bret Bielema said his team needs to start looking for leaders it can turn to on the field, rather than the sideline.
With the departure of its starting quarterback, three senior running backs, and the school-record holder for career receiving yards, the Razorbacks are looking for new leaders and some have already begun to step up, just a few days into spring practice.
“I think our kids are trying to get a feel for what they are and who they are, but two guys that jump out to me up front are Byran Jones and Chris Smith,” Bielema said. “Byran came up to me yesterday when we were wrapping up with practice. We had the threes in and he wanted to know right away what we could do better as a defense. He comes to my office with thoughts and ideas. I’m really intrigued by that and I think he has natural leadership qualities.
“Offensively, you’ll see personality come out. Two main positions, Jonathan Williams and the quarterback, whoever it is, have had minimal playing experience, so that really comes as you play more.
“A guy I’ve said, Sam Pittman and Jim Chaney all of our offensive coaches have made the comment on, Travis Swanson is as good of a natural-born leader on the offensive line as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
As Tyler Wilson, who owns the school record for most career passing yards and participated in Pro Day on Friday, is expected to be taken in next month’s NFL Draft, Arkansas has mainly three quarterbacks competing to replace him. Brandon Mitchell, who played mostly as a wide receiver in eight games last season, and Brandon Allen, who started against Alabama after Wilson suffered a head injury, are competing with walk-on junior college transfer A.J. Derby.
Derby was a four-star quarterback out of high school that transferred to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College after playing linebacker at Iowa. The 6-foot-5, 241-pound signal caller will have two years of eligibility with the Razorbacks.
“I think there’s no doubt that on offense, the key is who is going to be our trigger puller,” Bielema said. “I think Brandon Allen, Brandon Mitchell both have shown that they’ve kind of been little bit ahead of the curve. As far as the other guys that are involved, I would say that A.J. Derby has shown some things, that he’s definitely a guy that can manage a game. He’s been in that position and continued to impress us. He’s a thirsty kid, always eager to learn.
“Brandon Allen has thrown the deep ball very nice. He’s engaged, he understands it, he’s a football kid. Obviously, his dad is a coach and all that goes into it. That part is very evident.
“Brandon Mitchell is a tremendous competitor. The kids really respond to him. He’s got a live arm at certain throws. He’s reverted back and called a play by the old system and everyone looks like he’s got three heads.”
Even though Bielema had three different quarterbacks (Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O’Brien) pass for at least 500 yards last season at Wisconsin, he said he hopes for one of his quarterbacks to emerge as an undisputed starter.
“I’ve never been into a QB rotation, never been a QB-by-committee guy,” Bielema said. “Now, there may be a segment that a quarterback has some unique skill sets that we could work him into. But on most accounts, you want that guy to be the signal caller on every play.
“If there is one thing that I would get across to our quarterbacks in general is that I need to have an urgency out of them to become great. If the quarterback position is not a junkie, if he’s not a guy is begging on your door every day to be learning, we are not going to get where we need to be. At that particular position in general, we need a whole lot of urgency.”
The Razorbacks have practiced just three times under Bielema, but he knows the qualities he wants to see in his signal callers throughout the rest of the preseason.
“Three things that are important to me at quarterback play are: How to manage the game. You know, be able to handle the huddle, handle the communication, handle the snap, just do the things that quarterbacks, by given right, should be able to do,” Bielema said. “The second thing is be able to execute the play. So, we’ve got a five-yard dig, he’s got to be able to execute it. He’s got an outside handoff, he’s got to be able to execute it. We’ve got a bootleg to our right, he’s got to be able to execute it. Whatever the play design is, he’s got to be able to execute it.
“The third thing and most prevalent to me, and you’re not going to find this in practice three, four five. Hopefully over the course of 15 we’ll get an indicator. But a QB needs to be triumphant in the most difficult times. If you want a championship level team, he’s got to be at his best when everybody else is at their worst. And that truly defines a quarterback.”