When Ryan Mallett transferred to Arkansas nearly three years ago, his rocky reputation preceded him.
It traced back to 2007, his lone season at Michigan, when the hulking quarterback with a cannon arm was larger than life on and off the field. On that senior-laden Wolverines team that featured such future NFL players as Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Jake Long, Mallett was despised by many.
The confidence that had made him one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks when he came out of Texas High School in Texarkana, Texas, was viewed by most of his Michigan teammates as arrogance and selfishness. His fun-loving attitude caused him to come across at times as more interested in the social scene than football.
Mallett left Michigan because he didn’t think his pocket passing style fit with new coach Rich Rodriguez’s spread-option offense. But when he arrived at Arkansas in January 2008, his new teammates had already heard plenty about him.
“Everybody expected him to just be a big douchebag, basically,” Arkansas wide receiver Jarius Wright said. “To be big-headed and overrated.”
Yet those same teammates who once ridiculed Mallett are now praising him for his work ethic, dedication, and perhaps most important, his leadership.
That’s significant because Mallett’s physical skills have never been doubted. The 6-foot-6, 238-pound redshirt junior already has 701 yards passing, 6 touchdowns and a 73.1 completion percentage for No. 12 Arkansas (2-0) entering its SEC opener Saturday at Georgia (1-1).
But there always have been questions about his off-the-field behavior and whether he could actually be liked by teammates, let alone lead them. Now, he’s being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate and there’s talk of him leading the Razorbacks to their first national championship since 1964.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of him,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino says.
After Mallett set or tied 16 team records in his first season at Arkansas last year while throwing for 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns with 7 interceptions in leading the Razorbacks to an 8-5 record, he’s become a legend in these parts.
He’s been referred to as “Paul Bunyan with a bazooka arm.” According to local lore, his passes have been clocked at more than 110 miles per hour and like the character Uncle Rico in the movie Napoleon Dynamite, it’s believed that he can throw a football over a mountain.
Neither claim is true, of course, but Mallett doesn’t mind the exaggerations.
“They’ve added on a little bit along the way,” he says. “I think it’s funny.”
There was a time at Arkansas when Mallett was more myth than legend. Not larger than life — just large. When his Razorback teammates first met him he was a hefty 265 pounds.
“We just laughed,” Wright says, recalling how players openly mocked Mallett’s physique.
Yet Mallett had showed flashes of his potential as a freshman during Michigan’s tumultuous 2007 season. He started three games when Henne was injured and ended up throwing for 892 yards and 7 touchdowns with 5 interceptions.
But that didn’t satisfy many of Mallett’s older teammates, who questioned his dedication.
“He probably should have not done some of the things that he did as far as going out-wise,” said David Cone, a backup quarterback at Michigan during Mallett’s freshman season. “There were a lot of freshmen that do that, you know. He was just being really a typical freshman.”
Before the end of Mallett’s freshman season, then-coach Lloyd Carr announced his impending retirement. The Wolverines then hired Rodriguez, whose spread-option offense has generally been most successful with a quarterback who can run first and pass second.
Mallett knew he was unlikely to be a fit for Rodriguez’s offense. When coach and player met, those fears were confirmed.
“He just tried to convince me that I wasn’t a statue,” Mallett says. “And I was like, “I know I’m not a runner.’”
Mallett decided to leave Michigan. While making the 18-hour drive home to Texarkana, Ark., he looked at his GPS and decided to take a route through Fayetteville to visit a friend, Arkansas tight end Ben Cleveland. Mallett grew up a Razorbacks fan and used to help his parents park cars at their games, but he didn’t give them much consideration coming out of high school because they had a highly touted sophomore quarterback, Mitch Mustain — who a few months later ended up transferring to USC.
But with Petrino having replaced Arkansas coach Houston Nutt and using a pro-style offense, Mallett decided to transfer to play for his beloved Hogs.
“It feels natural,” Mallett says. “I’m living a childhood dream.”
Despite their initial skepticism, Mallett’s new teammates quickly grew to respect him. They were initially impressed by his rocket passes, but it was his work ethic, which later helped him overcome two surgeries this year on his left foot, that made the difference.
“I’m just proud that he’s worked so hard,” Wright says.
Mallett’s arm, however, draws the most attention. In high school, he dislocated two of a receiver’s fingers. At Michigan, his throws at a practice once shredded a receiver’s brand new gloves.
Wright compares catching a pass from Mallett to trying to catch a baseball pitch barehanded.
“It can hurt,” he says. “Sometimes, it just goes right through your hands and hits you in the chest and you have to catch it. It’s either catch it or wear it.”
The worst experience, Wright says, is when one of Mallett’s passes hits just underneath the shoulder pads.
“That’s when the ball hits you dead in your nipple," he says. "It hurts so bad.”
Mallett’s arm is so powerful that Wright fears that one of his passes could end up being tragic for a person not wearing a helmet.
“If it hit you in the temple, you would probably die,” he says.
That conjecture doesn’t bother Mallett, but he’s haunted by the perception that he’s behaved wildly off the field in the past.
Mallett says he used to go out a lot but only to spend time with people, not to party. He says Internet postings of his alleged antics are not true, but admits to having matured.
“I’m not like I used to be,” he said with a sheepish grin. “I grew up a lot since my younger days.”
Mallett was arrested near the Arkansas campus in March 2009 for public intoxication. Since then, he says he no longer goes out and instead spends his time sleeping and watching football with his girlfriend as well as their favorite television show, “Wipeout.” He points out that after games, he heads to his apartment to watch replays with his teammates.
“Now, I’m down to business,” he says.
Petrino has coached NFL quarterbacks Mark Brunell, Jake Plummer, Jason Campbell and Brian Brohm, but says Mallett might be the most talented of them all. When Petrino watches tape of his team’s game the day after, he’s always amazed by several of Mallett’s passes.
“You just say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he was able to make that throw,’” Petrino says.
Often regarded as just a thrower, Mallett also has an innate ability to read defenses. Wright recalls that Mallett once told a scout-team linebacker that he was out of position and that he needed to move over prior to the snap.
“Ryan is really smart,” Petrino says.
Mallett knows he must improve his passing accuracy and performance on the road, both of which were lackluster last season, but Petrino says he is already being too hard on himself so far this season. After throwing for 400 yards and three touchdowns last Saturday in a 31-7 victory against Louisiana-Monroe, Mallett didn’t feel that he played as well as he could have, according to Petrino.
“He wants to be a little too perfect,” Petrino says. “He needs to relax and just enjoy it a little bit more than he has.”
Mallett is widely expected to declare for the NFL draft after this season. Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com and a former longtime executive for the Dallas Cowboys, says Mallett can expect to be asked plenty of questions by NFL teams.
Some have compared Mallett to Ryan Leaf, a similar big, strong-armed pocket quarterback with off-the-field concerns, who was the second pick of the 1998 NFL draft before flaming out as perhaps the biggest bust in league history.
“He’s one of those guys you’re going to have to check out pretty carefully,” Brandt says of Mallett.
Yet Petrino raves about Mallett’s leadership. He brags that Mallett can captivate a room full of people within 10 minutes with his magnetic demeanor.
“That makes all our players better,” Petrino says. “That gives them a lot of confidence.”
And now Mallett’s Arkansas teammates are eager to spread the word that he’s not what they once thought.
“He’s lived up to the hype,” Wright says.
Now, if only that reputation could actually exceed Mallett’s legend.