FAYETTEVILLE — A.J. Derby knows exactly what happened on the deep ball during last Saturday’s scrimmage in Razorback Stadium.
He was too open. There was too much time to think about a touchdown. So it led to Brandon Allen’s well-thrown pass slipping right through his hands.
“I got a little too casual with it,” Derby said. “I’ve never really been on that end of it, being that wide open. It just kind of happened. … But it won’t happen again.”
The dropped pass — which would’ve been a touchdown — was the only glitch during Derby’s first week at a new position.
The senior finally acquiesced when Arkansas coach Bret Bielema urged him to move from quarterback to tight end and was rewarded with a confidence-building week. Derby caught two passes for 22 yards and a touchdown in Arkansas’ scrimmage last Saturday and, despite the drop, has received plenty of support from coaches and teammates as he begins his second week with Arkansas’ tight ends.
“He’s really been impressive,” Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said. “He’s done a really nice job. He can run. He’s very willing as a blocker. He’s natural. So we’re excited about what he’s injected into our room. …
“A.J. has been a welcomed addition. There’s no doubt.”
The first step, according to Bielema, was Derby’s willingness to try it.
Derby has been determined to play quarterback throughout his collegiate career, which began at Iowa. The Hawkeyes moved Derby from quarterback to linebacker late in his redshirt freshman season, prompting him to leave the program.
He played quarterback at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, then headed to Arkansas. The Razorbacks gave Derby a shot to play quarterback and he worked as Brandon Allen’s backup last season. Bielema urged Derby several times to slide over to another position, but the quarterback wouldn’t agree — until this month.
“I’ve always been a real bull-headed person,” Derby said. “I always thought I could play quarterback at this level. I finally had enough talks with Coach B and he just said what was best for the team was moving me to tight end. I thought I want to get on the field, I want to help the team win and I think this is going to help us win.”
Derby said the first two practices were an adjustment as he got used to contact and footwork at the position. But Bielema said Derby was “incredible” his first practice.
It helps that Derby knows what he’s supposed to do on every play because the former quarterback knows the ins and outs of the Arkansas offense.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who has worked closely with Derby the past year, wasn’t surprised to see him make a smooth transition.
“Even when he was at the quarterback spot, no mater what spot he’s at, A.J. has a tremendous amount of football intellect,” Chaney said. “He gets the game of football. Everything comes pretty simple for him. For him being able to move in and be productive at that position doesn’t shock anybody.”
He’s working with a young group that includes Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle and Alex Voelzke. Henry said Derby’s experience has already aided them as well.
“He’s been around,” Henry said. “He knows this offense well just being at quarterback. When he’s in our room he knows things that sometimes we don’t always know. So it’s good to hear his side of things, too.”
Derby is getting plenty of advice in his transition from Arkansas’ tight ends and coaches. There are tips from his brother, too. Zach Derby played tight end at Iowa.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound A.J. Derby knows he’ll have to get bigger in the offseason to hold up to the physical demands of the position. But he’s not concerned.
“I’m going to have to gain a little bit, but I’m feeling pretty good about that,” Derby said. “I grew up, my brother played tight end and he always used to beat me up growing up. So I’m used to being hit and getting hit a lot.”
Derby shouldered his share of criticism as a quarterback last season, filling in for injured starter Brandon Allen. He played the final three quarters of the win against Southern Miss, then started Arkansas’ loss at Rutgers the next week.
Derby completed 19 of 36 passes for 178 yards with a touchdown and interception, but the offense struggled when he was on the field. He remained Arkansas’ second-team quarterback when spring practice began and performed well during the Razorbacks’ first scrimmage (8-for-13, 145 yards, touchdown, interception).
But Derby moved to tight end a few days later. His position switch, along with Damon Mitchell’s trial at wide receiver, has shortened Arkansas’ quarterback depth chart to Brandon Allen, Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey the rest of the spring.
“I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination that he waved the white flag on the quarterback competition because he’s a competitive,” Lunney Jr. said. “But he wants to play. And if our coaching staff, Coach B, feels like this is his best chance to play a significant amount going forward, then I think he welcomed it.”
It took awhile, but Derby has been receptive to the change as he prepares for the 2014 season. Derby’s also optimistic he can be productive at the new position.
“I do,” Derby said. “I’m feeling really good about what’s going on and the coaches are telling me positive things. I’m just excited about what’s going on.”