Arkansas went from five wins to eight last year
By ANDY BITTER
HOOVER, Ala. — Tight end D.J. Williams has a good sense of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett’s arm strength.
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Too many times he has jerked his head back while catching a blur of a pass, wanting to make sure the tight spiral doesn’t slip through his hands and hit his face.
But Williams found a new appreciation for the howitzer on Mallett’s right shoulder. While recovering from a broken left foot that kept him out last spring, the 6-foot-7 quarterback took practice throws without the benefit of momentum, unable to step into them and let loose.
“He was throwing 65-yard fades down the field all on his back leg,” Williams said. “Just imagine if he had that extra step. He’d probably put that thing on a rope.”
Mallett’s tantalizing arm — the Family Arm, he calls it, because his uncles all had cannons on the baseball field — and coach Bobby Petrino’s reputation as an offensive genius have made the Razorbacks the vogue sleeper pick this season, a point-scoring juggernaut that could turn the defensive-minded SEC on its ear.
Despite a porous defense, Arkansas went from five wins in Petrino’s first year to eight last year, Mallett’s first season under center. The quarterback led the SEC in total offense, throwing for 3,627 yards and 30 touchdowns.
Aided by a talented group of receivers, including the All-SEC Williams, and Petrino’s play-calling, Mallett has been dubbed by many to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“The expectations are really high,” said Mallett, who expects to be fully recovered from his foot injury by the start of the season. “We have even higher expectations of ourselves as a team.”
It’s dangerous territory. Last year at this time, Mississippi was a popular dark-horse pick, based largely on the star quality and strong sophomore season of quarterback Jevan Snead.
Snead, however, took a step back, throwing 20 interceptions as the Rebels fell short of their lofty goals. Snead made the puzzling move to enter the NFL Draft last winter.
Mallett seems comfortable with his situation. After last season, his redshirt sophomore year, he could have gone pro and would have been a high pick based merely on his physical skills. Instead, he stayed, not wanting to cheat the program that welcomed him as a transfer after he spent his freshman year at Michigan in 2007.
“I felt like I owed it to the state,” the Batesville, Ark., native said. “Playing one year and then leaving, I didn’t find it ethically right.”
Mallett hasn’t gotten caught up in the fame, unaffected by his newfound celebrity or the fact that he alone graces the cover of the Arkansas media guide.
“He’s always had that presence everywhere he goes that the camera is on him, everybody looking at him knows his face,” Williams said. “But he hasn’t taken it like, ‘Do you know who I am? I’m Ryan Mallett. Give me what I want.’ … He’s a very smart kid, very humble.”
Williams thinks too many people confuse Mallett’s confidence for cockiness.
“He knows where the ball needs to go once it goes out of his hands,” Williams said. “He’s like, ‘That’s money. That’s money. That’s money.’ He’s very confident. And that just comes from repetition. Every throw he makes, that’s not his first throw.”
Petrino compared Mallett favorably to another star pupil of his, Brian Brohm, who set the Big East career record in passing yards from 2005-07. But Brohm didn’t have the arm strength that pro scouts drool over. Mallett does, although Petrino has tried to get him to dial it back on delicate throws.
Mallett remains motivated. He characterized his play last season as simply OK, unhappy with the number of reads he missed.
“If I just take what I do in practice to the game, we might be 100 percent every game,” he said.
It’s an unsettling thought for the rest of the SEC. Asked what it’s like to plan defensively for Arkansas, Georgia coach Mark Richt didn’t need many words to sum up his feelings.
“It’s scary,” he said.