FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -At 6-foot-7, Ryan Mallett towers over some of his teammates on the practice field.
That’s just as well, because if there’s one player Arkansas fans have been eager to see this spring, it’s the strong-armed transfer from Michigan who is the Razorbacks’ newest hope at quarterback.
Mallett is eligible to play this fall after sitting out the 2008 season, and he’s a big reason why Arkansas could improve dramatically in coach Bobby Petrino’s second year at the school. With three years of eligibility remaining, Mallett hopes to seize the reins of the Hogs’ offense and provide the type of passing threat the program has seldom had.
“I couldn’t wait to get out here and compete with these other guys. It was a long, long year,” Mallett said. “I was so glad spring got here.”
Go through a list of Arkansas’ greatest players, and you won’t find many passing stars. Clint Stoerner was impressive during the late 1990s, and Matt Jones produced weekly highlights at quarterback earlier this decade – but no Razorback has thrown for 400 yards in a game or 3,000 yards in a season.
Enter Mallett, who played in 11 games at Michigan in 2007. He threw for 892 yards with seven touchdown passes and five interceptions while filling in for Chad Henne, then left the Wolverines after coach Lloyd Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez was hired to replace him. Rodriguez’s spread offense has featured mobile quarterbacks, and Mallett didn’t appear to be much of a fit.
“When coach Carr left, I was kind of upset. He was like another father figure, and I knew he wasn’t going to be there, and I wasn’t recruited by the other guy out of high school,” Mallett said. “I didn’t think that it was best for me to stay there.”
Mallett went to high school in Texarkana, Texas, while living on the other side of town, in Arkansas. He was a Razorbacks’ fan growing up, and Arkansas was an obvious option when he decided to transfer. Petrino, a coach with a reputation for helping quarterbacks thrive, had just been hired.
“I would have loved to come here out of high school, but the situation wasn’t right and so I thought I made a good decision,” Mallett said. “After a year, things changed around there and I decided it was best to leave.”
Mallett hasn’t been named Arkansas’ starter yet. He might have hurt his chances by getting arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. At the start of spring practice, he shared the top spot on the depth chart with Tyler Wilson, who played sparingly last year for the Razorbacks. The two quarterbacks are competing to take over for Casey Dick, who was a senior last season when Arkansas went 5-7.
The Arkansas spring game is Saturday, and perhaps after that, Petrino will shed more light on how his quarterbacks measure up. He did praise Mallett on Thursday.
“As long as he gets his footwork right and his sets are correct, he can be a very accurate passer. He’s got a strong arm. I think he’s learning how to control it and how to make the different throws,” Petrino said.
“Our ability to throw the ball down the field and do some of those things, I think, will be much better this year – because of Ryan’s arm and his ability to make those throws, and because of our experience and speed at receiver.”
Mallett’s arm strength and height are obvious assets. Petrino has been a bit concerned about his psyche.
“He needs to relax a little bit and not get down,” Petrino said recently. “I think he’s his worst enemy. He expects so much from himself that when he makes a mistake or makes a bad throw, he’s not able to put it behind him and move on.”
Arkansas returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense, meaning anything less than a bowl will be a disappointment. Michael Smith, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2008, is back, and receivers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright showed promise as freshmen last year.
No wonder Mallett seemed to approach this spring with so much urgency.
“I’m my hardest critic,” he admitted. “I think you have to be like that as a quarterback.”