Allen, Mitchell embrace QB competition at Arkansas
Brandon Allen’s first look at the new Arkansas playbook came last month, a few weeks in advance of his first spring practice under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Since that time, the Razorbacks’ sophomore quarterback hasn’t strayed far from his new offense. Even while on spring break last week, Allen spent time learning plays and memorizing the new terminology.
Allen and senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell are far from alone in their immersion under Chaney and new coach Bret Bielema. Like their teammates, both have had plenty of homework on their agendas in recent weeks.
Also on the agenda has been an all-out competition to replace Tyler Wilson at quarterback for Arkansas. Whoever emerges as the starter, either this spring or during the preseason in August, will be counted on to lead the Razorbacks following a disastrous 4-8 record last season.
”I know we both want to be the guy,” Allen said. ”On the field, we’re both helping each other and same way in the meeting room. We’re both pushing each other in the meeting room and on the field, and that’s making our competition grow. That’s just bettering each other.”
The Razorbacks are four practices into their first spring under Bielema, the former Wisconsin coach who arrived in Fayetteville in December, eager to face the challenges of the Southeastern Conference. All of the practices have been closed to the public so far, with Bielema eager to work out the kinks before opening the gates to the media on Saturday for the team’s first scrimmage.
By all accounts, Arkansas has experienced a more physical style of practice under its new coach compared to last season when interim coach John L. Smith was left to pick up the pieces following Bobby Petrino’s firing.
More importantly, the Razorbacks have undergone a resurgence of belief – both in themselves and the new coaching staff.
”Things have changed; it’s a new beginning,” Arkansas sophomore receiver Mekale McKay said. ”It’s not the losing team; it’s not the losing mentality. We’re hungry. It’s a winning mentality. It’s more player involved, it’s not really about the coaches.
”It’s about players keeping players on top of their jobs so the coaches won’t have (anything) to worry about,” he said. ”When players take care of player’s responsibilities, the coaches can do their job and don’t have to be a babysitter.”
McKay’s confidence has been fueled by Bielema’s arrival as well as that of Chaney, the former Tennessee offensive coordinator who also helped develop New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees while at Purdue. Chaney guided Volunteers quarterback Tyler Bray to an average of 301 yards passing per game last season, while Tennessee finished second overall in the SEC in both total offense (475.9) and passing offense (315.6) per game.
Both Allen and Mitchell have raved about Chaney’s approach this spring, even if the installation of his playbook has had its ups-and-downs. An example of one of those downs was Mitchell, a senior, using the old offense’s terminology while calling a play during one of the early practices.
Chaney said hiccups are to be expected, and he’s gone out of his way to slow things down while the quarterbacks learn the system.
”We’re teaching them a new foreign language, and they are having to learn all the new words and terminology and it’s difficult,” Chaney said. ”When you do that, it slows down the way you move and makes you think a little too much. You see some of the timing issues because they are still thinking out there, but what has been encouraging; their attitude has been awesome.”
Allen emerged during preseason camp last year after redshirting as a freshman. The Fayetteville native earned the role of Wilson’s backup, while Mitchell moved to receiver and spent most of his season there.
The 6-foot-4, 239-pound Mitchell made his move in an attempt to receive more playing time. He’s now back at quarterback, hoping to finally earn his time as the starter and build on his best season at quarterback – when he was 22-of-32 passing for 271 yards in 2011.
He’s also embracing the renewed competition with Allen.
”I knew what I was doing last year,” Mitchell said. ”I knew what was going to happen this year. It was clearly explained to me that if I wanted to play receiver, the next year I would have to prove myself again at quarterback. So, I knew what I was stepping into, and it was something I happily accepted.”
The closest Chaney would come to saying which quarterback was ahead of the other was to say both Allen and Mitchell are receiving the majority of the first-team work.
Like his slowed-down approach to offensive installation, however, Chaney is more focused on making the right choice at starter rather than a hurried one.
”They are both getting their reps and doing a nice job and have been on the field a little bit more and have a little bit more understanding,” Chaney said. ”… I am pleased with them. The competition is there, and I think they will compete with each other.”