LITTLE ROCK — I don’t know if A.J. Derby can play quarterback at Arkansas; I do know he is physical and confident, qualities that stand a quarterback in good stead in the Southeastern Conference.
Derby’s back story makes the round-about transfer from Iowa the most intriguing participant in what will be the first true quarterback competition at Arkansas in years.
More familiar to Arkansans, the other candidates include two who are wise to the game as sons of football coaches and a third who is a good enough athlete to play wide receiver and college basketball.
There was lip service about quarterback competition prior to the 2009 season, but Ryan Mallett was going to be No. 1. The last two years, it was Tyler Wilson.
But, Bobby Petrino is gone and Brandon Allen, who beat out Brandon Mitchell for the No. 2 spot last spring, is on even footing with the other three in the eyes of Bret Bielema.
Arkansas’ 2013 offense will be shaped by the head coach, new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and the talent available. At his introductory news conference, Bielema said recruiting would be more and more specific as time goes on, a clear signal that the offense will evolve. For now, he will not force a round peg of a quarterback into the square hole of an offensive philosophy, which brings us to Derby, Allen, Mitchell, and Taylor Reed.
Derby was a back-up quarterback at Iowa until head coach Kirk Ferentz scheduled a face-to-face in late October 2011. Citing injuries, Ferentz asked the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Derby to move to linebacker and said he needed a decision by day’s end.
After talking with his family, Derby, the son of an All-Big Ten linebacker, said OK.
Good enough at quarterback to receive offers from Michigan, Florida, Miami, Oklahoma, and others, he had had enough by the end of the season and transferred to Coffeyville, Kan., Community College.
In April 2012, he was one of several Coffeyville players who attended Arkansas’ spring game. Knowing that Wilson would not be around in 2013, Derby sized up the quarterbacks and decided he could compete.
He completed less than 50 percent of his passes at Coffeyville with 22 TD passes and 14 interceptions and his stock has fallen some since his high school days. Still, he turned down an offer from Houston to play at Arkansas, knowing there was no scholarship available.
If he comes out of spring as No. 1 or No. 2, Derby will get a scholarship.
Although Allen was Wilson’s back up, his reputation is based more on Petrino’s praise and his high school career than production at Arkansas. The Razorback coaches passed on a couple of chances to play Allen in games that were out of hand and he threw only 49 times all season. Eighteen attempts came against Alabama and two were intercepted.
Off the bench the previous week, the son of 15-year Arkansas assistant Bobby Allen was only 6-of-20 with an interception in the overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
Mitchell made the transition from quarterback to wide receiver in the spring and was primed to help the Razorbacks, but played in only six games because of an injury and a suspension for violation of team rules. Chaney has said Mitchell will get a chance at quarterback.
Reed, son of El Dorado High School coach Scott Reed, started nine games for Memphis as a freshman in 2011. Reed, who threw for 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns with four interceptions, transferred to Arkansas last summer and sat out 2012.
I would be surprised if a clear-cut winner of the competition emerges during the first dozen practices of the spring. In that case, Bielema can drum up real interest in the Red-White game on April 20 by giving all four equal opportunity.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.