Jim Harris: Razorbacks’ Bret Bielema Taking Gamble With Backup QB Situation


The decision by Bret Bielema on Brandon Mitchell has made the back-up quarterback position the biggest of many questions for the Hogs this fall.

The “Talking Football” program the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame was a hit with its inception two years ago, when Bobby Petrino helped the Hall of Fame raise more money for such projects as its long-awaited conference room. Bret Bielema, Petrino’s successor (of course, with John L. Smith temporarily between them) is the guest Sunday night at Chenal Country Club, and then Bielema will tee it up the next day for the Hall’s annual celebrity golf tournament.

Don’t read anything into the fact that the previous two “Talking Football” speakers were Gus Malzahn last summer and Petrino the year before, with both moving on for different reasons from the jobs they  held at the time.

Malzahn had tough questions to field — from the media, not the football fans who were excited to see the former Arkansas high school and Auburn offensive coordinator return as Arkansas State’s coach — when his “Talking Football” visit coincided with the news of Michael Dyer’s traffic stop several months earlier and his sudden dismissal from A-State’s team.

Malzahn never has handled the controversial press conferences (there were a handful with Auburn, too) and didn’t this time either, offering “no comment” in a variety of ways about Dyer’s situation. (A couple of days later, ASU and Malzahn realized they needed to be a little more forthcoming than “no comment” in addressing Dyer’s departure and what everyone knew about a traffic stop, with marijuana and a gun involved, months earlier).

We won’t blame Razorback fans for knocking on the nearest wood, but everything seems quiet for Bret Bielema in the run-up to “Talking Football.”

The biggest controversy of late has been the departure of backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell, who wanted to be the Razorback starter and will take his chances somewhere else in a fifth-year of eligibility. Mitchell will have his degree from Arkansas soon and will be eligibility to play this fall somewhere else.

Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen

Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen named starter by Bret Bielema.

Mitchell’s sudden departure was put into motion when Bielema, in his post-spring practice press conference, noted that Brandon Allen had won the starting quarterback job but that the coach was eager to get Mitchell somewhere on the field. That surprising news to Mitchell wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

Last season, with Tyler Wilson firmly entrenched at quarterback and a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, Mitchell willingly made the move to receiver, where Arkansas was rebuilding in every spot with the exception of Cobi Hamilton’s. Mitchell had some success early in the season, but ended up with 17 catches for the year. When he absent-mindedly loaded pictures onto Instagram that showed him and a Razorback booster flying in the booster’s plane in the open week before Arkansas’ game with Ole Miss, Mitchell was suddenly suspended, though the UA never explained the official reason or cited the booster relationship (Mitchell would confirm that in a recent radio interview, however, that the suspension involved his travel home during the off week).

When Mitchell returned for the season finale against LSU, he was rusty and dropped passes in a game Arkansas was perhaps one play from winning.

Brandon Mitchell

Former Razorback Brandon Mitchell

There is some belief within some players that Mitchell’s actions late last year may have had a negative effect on his leadership qualities, which seemed to be on the plus side last year when he chose to put the team over his personal wishes. Mitchell also seemed to perform better in the team’s spring scrimmages under Petrino than he would show in games during the fall in fill-in situations.

The surprise of the move, from our standpoint, is that Bielema’s decision on Mitchell in essence made back-up quarterback the biggest of many question marks for the Hogs entering fall camp.

Three walk-ons who seemed to get only occasional spring work behind the two Brandons now immediately figure as Brandon Allen’s replacement: Brian Buehner, who transferred from Louisville to play for Petrino three seasons back; A.J. Derby, a walk-on who played junior college football in Kansas last fall and who might be better suited to be a tight end; and Taylor Reed, a repeat state champion quarterback from El Dorado, a coach’s son, who played a season at Memphis before leaving for Fayetteville where his dad, Scott, played in the 1980s.

The incoming freshmen quarterbacks are Austin Allen, Brandon’s little brother, who guided Fayetteville to back-to-back 7A state championships, and Damon Mitchell from New Jersey.

Allen isn’t flashy but seems to have a certain intangible in making big plays in the biggest games, and both have a chance to have an impact on Arkansas football, but it seems remote that it would come this fall. In most cases, the transition from high school football to the SEC is too great. Even Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, a four-star prepster out of Mobile, needed a two-year preparation period and Nick Saban’s wrath when he struggled early before he became one of Alabama’s more celebrated championship-winning quarterbacks.

The Razorbacks have had a few quarterbacks play in their first seasons in the SEC when the position was in disarray among the upperclassmen. In fact, in the Hogs’ debut year in the SEC, Barry Lunney Jr. (now a first-year Hogs’ tight end coach) was given the reins before the Tennessee game and led Arkansas to a monumental first SEC upset, 25-24 over the No. 4 Vols in Knoxville. Lunney and the excited Hogs, as well as the fan base, were all brought back to earth quickly (and literally, as Lunney was sacked over and over) in a humbling loss to Ole Miss in Little Rock.

Lunney had to regain the job in his senior year, 1995, but went on to lead the Hogs to their first outright SEC West title, including a first win over Alabama.

Clint Stoerner saw lots of playing time late in the 1996 season behind Pete Burks as a frosh out of Baytown, Texas, then started every game through a rough 1997 season under Danny Ford (47 sacks for the year), but all that paved the way for back-to-back seasons where Arkansas reached an SEC high, tying for the West in 1998, then beating Tennessee in the regular season and then longtime nemesis Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

Of course, Springdale’s Mitch Mustain had the most notable freshman UA career, though it turned out to be his only season at Arkansas. Mustain, given the starting job in week 2 after Arkansas lost 50-14 to Southern Cal at home, led Arkansas to 8 straight wins, only to be demoted behind sophomore Casey Dick late in the year. Arkansas won the SEC West and competed gamely with Florida in the SEC Championship Game, losing  38-28, but Mustain was out the door and headed to Southern Cal by the next spring.

Dick as well saw starting action over the last four games of a woeful 2005 season.

So, it’s not like a freshman can’t play or hasn’t played a significant if not starting role at quarterback for the Razorbacks. You’d rather let them grow into the role through a redshirt year behind an established starter.

Only, Brandon Allen is anything but established. He had a solid spring and limited his mistakes — reportedly and from listening to Bielema during the spring, the turnovers in the red zone during spring scrimmages assured Mitchell’s role as a backup only — but it remains to be seen what he can do successfully against real opponents other than teammates. Allen was forced into the starters role against Alabama last fall after Tyler Wilson suffered a concussion in the ULM loss; Allen was put in a difficult situation in the ULM game as well with the playcalling from now departed assistant Paul Petrino. Allen, for at least one season against ULM, had a Johnny Manziel moment of scrambling and driving the Hogs to a touchdown, but the game slipped away after that.

If Brandon Allen can play the 2013 season well enough and avoid the disabling injuries that knocked out Wilson last year for a game or sidelined Ryan Mallett for a week or more in 2010, then the Razorbacks won’t have to worry about its backup quarterback situation.

But there’s always the “what if?” And that’s probably the first question Bret Bielema should get from either the media before the event or from the fans during “Talking Football” on Sunday at Chenal.

Editor’s Note: Bret Bielema addressed the quarterback issue, Brandon Mitchell’s departure and a range of other SEC-related topics with Jim Harris, here.

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