QB Mallett eager to bring SEC glory to long-suffering Razorbacks
Ryan Mallett passed on first-round money to return to his hometown team
Arkansas has never had such expectations -- or a Heisman candidate at QB
Pressure has not gotten to Mallett, who is talking about a championship run
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- He has finally ditched the scooter, which is a relief. The four-wheeled contraption was light, it was handy, and it allowed Ryan Mallett to get around quite nicely while the broken bone in his left foot healed. But even with a bicycle bell affixed to the handlebars by a student trainer, it wasn't stylish transportation.
No, it looked "funny," and Mallett was embarrassed to be seen riding it. And unfortunately, it was a sure-fire conversation starter.
"The people that enjoy Arkansas football," he said, "will come and talk."
Around here, that's just about everybody. Of course, around here, just about everybody already recognized the Arkansas quarterback. But add the scooter, and there was no doubt.
Nor was there any doubt about the inevitable first question: How's the foot? Specifics are hard to come by; Mallett has clearly been coached in the art of being vague. But in a teleconference a few days back, he said it's healing nicely, that a second surgery last month to replace a screw wasn't actually a setback and that he should be ready to roll by preseason practice. Sorry, "roll" wasn't a great verb choice. Let's go with run. Or more importantly, pass.
Consider it Mallett's attempt to reassure the Arkansas fans who have been wondering, since Mallett broke the foot during a conditioning drill last February, whether it might be just another chapter in the overall narrative of Razorback football. Think Charlie Brown's futility in kicking the football, and you've got the picture.
There's more buzz preceding Arkansas' 2010 campaign than anyone around here can remember. The pieces seem to be in place for a run at the SEC championship, or if you're really optimistic, even beyond. In Bobby Petrino's third season, the Hogs return 17 starters. For the first time in what seems like forever, that includes a franchise quarterback.
Mallett, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound junior, set or tied 16 school records last season, his first after transferring from Michigan. After a rocky start, the Razorbacks won five of their last six games -- the loss came in overtime at LSU -- and Mallett's big right arm was a huge reason.
Quick quiz: When was the last time the Razorbacks went into a season with a Heisman candidate at quarterback?
Answer: Never. But Mallett is on all the unofficial lists, and the school has a low-key but detailed campaign in the works. If Mallett plays well enough to lead the Hogs to SEC glory -- capped by, say, a December win in Atlanta -- he might earn a trip to New York.
Add to the mix Mallett's personal story: He grew up an Arkansas fan, headed to Michigan as one of the nation's top prep quarterbacks, then transferred back home -- and then, after that record-setting season, decided to forgo an early shot at the NFL for another shot at leading the Hogs to glory.
"I felt I owed it to the state," Mallett said of the decision to return, and it sure seemed like he meant it. What we have here is a developing tall tale.
How tall? David Bazzel, a former Arkansas linebacker who is now a Little Rock talk show host -- and despite the occupation, he's someone who's not given to crazy hyperbole -- said Mallett is "Paul Bunyan with a bazooka arm." And the expectations for Mr. Bunyan?
"He'll take us to the promised land," Bazzel said.
Is that all? Right about now, you're wondering if this might be too much pressure, whether the favorite son would benefit greatly from reduced expectations, and what he thinks of it all. Mallett keeps hearing from fans who say things like, "We're looking for at least a 10-win season."
He keeps telling them: "I'm looking for 14."
Go ahead, count 'em up. Mallett is talking about winning it all. And even though it's not a one-man show -- Arkansas' offense, the highest-scoring attack in the SEC last year, is undoubtedly potent, but serious questions remain about a defense that ranked 89th nationally in 2009, surrendering 401 yards and 25 points a game -- you've got to like the kid's confidence. And also, his motivation.
Mallett's performances this fall will be evaluated through the prism of his NFL potential. There's that potential Heisman run to think about, too. But he insists he only wants to win. Well, there's also the quest to change the mindset of an entire fan base.
"Since I was growing up, it's always been like, 'Man, I hope we win this game,'" Mallett said. "That's the attitude we're trying to change. We've got the athletes to compete with anybody in the country. We've got to help make the fans believe that by going out and performing."
"If we play to our potential and get the ball to bounce our way a couple of times," he said, "it's a possibility."
Mallett understands that just beneath the fans' anticipation is anxiety, or even certainty, that calamity awaits. It's the story of Arkansas football, which has a proud tradition but only one national championship -- "and that's what, 46 years ago?" Mallett correctly noted.
Since 1964, the Razorbacks have occasionally come close, but never reached the top. And since they joined the Southeastern Conference, nearly 20 years ago, those moments have been fewer and farther between. Arkansas has been to the SEC Championship Game three times, but has never won it, and has never played in a BCS bowl.
Mallett knows the history. He's lived it. It has been almost 12 years since Clint Stoerner dropped the ball. College football fans might remember that game against Tennessee -- two unbeaten teams in mid-November, a classic SEC clash, a key moment in the Vols' run to a national title -- but Arkansas fans have it seared into their memory.
Not too many were surprised that Tennessee, coming off a loss in the national championship game to Nebraska, was in position again. But Arkansas? Houston Nutt had arrived from Boise State -- at the time (but not anymore) a favorite son -- and the Hogs were somehow 8-0 and, incredibly, holding a two-point lead and running out the clock in Knoxville.
And then Stoerner, a gritty winner without special skills -- like so many other Arkansas quarterbacks through the years -- tripped on a lineman's leg and dropped the football.
The ball bounced the Vols' way. They rolled to the winning touchdown, and from there to the national championship.
Mallett was 10. He watched the game on TV. And he still sees it, over and over again, the end-zone replay unfolding in his head. Stoerner stumbles, fumbles, and the Razorbacks' hopes crumble.
"A sickening feeling," Mallett said.
By now, Arkansas fans must think that's how the bounces are supposed to go. As the SEC has passed around the crystal football, and BCS bowl berths, the Hogs have contented themselves with lesser thrills and perennial also-ran status. Hence the caution -- We expect 10 wins! -- and given Arkansas' history, keeping expectations manageable seems like the smart thing. But could anyone imagine the fans of, say, Alabama doing the same?
And here is where hope comes into play, because Arkansas has never had a quarterback quite like Mallett. At least, not since Joe Ferguson. Petrino has coached quarterbacks like Mark Brunell, Jake Plummer, Brian Brohm, Jason Campbell. He said Mallett might be the most talented.
"His height and arm strength are something that are right at the top," Petrino said. "The competitive spirit and the leadership are right with all the great quarterbacks."
Mallett was considered a probable first-round selection had he decided to leave early for the NFL (as a third-year player, he was eligible after his sophomore season). But he said was never too serious about leaving. He promised his mother he would graduate (he lacks 15 hours for a sociology degree, and plans earn 12 hours this fall). Arkansas' media relations staff pitched a plan for promoting him for postseason awards. And Mallett keeps saying he owed it to the fans.
"They let me transfer in (from Michigan)," he said. "It wouldn't be fair after one year to up and leave. And look at the guys we've got coming back!"
Those other guys are vital, but Mallett is the catalyst. He needs to improve his decision-making and accuracy. He was very good at home last season, but mediocre on the road. And against the SEC's best defenses, his numbers were pedestrian. But it was Mallett's first year as a starter, and Petrino subscribes to the old coach's axiom that a quarterback makes his biggest jump in Year 2.
"He's a great football player," Petrino said. "There's no question about that. He has a chance to be one of the best or the best quarterback in the country. He's certainly the leader of our football team and gives us a chance to compete for a championship."
And that's the expectation. The anticipation has been building since the day last January when Mallett announced he would return for his junior season. "Get ready," he told the fans at a news conference.
"The expectations are this is gonna be the year," said Bazzel, the former linebacker-turned-talker. "We've got the coach, he's got the system, and we've got a quarterback and he's gonna deliver."
Can you feel the pressure increasing? Mallett's response: Bring it on.
"It's something this state wants and needs," Mallett said. "It's exciting to have the chance to go get it."
Ultimately, the task of lifting a program to unprecedented heights, and altering the expectations of a fan base, might be too much for one person. It's a very tall order.
Unless the tall tale turns out to be true.
George Schroeder covers college football for the Eugene Register Guard and is the former president of the FWAA. Follow him on Twitter.