Jim Harris: Bret Bielema Gives Backup Nod to Transfer AJ Derby

If the Arkansas Razorbacks kicked off their 2013 season Monday, sophomore Brandon Allen would be the unquestioned starter at quarterback, having clearly separated himself from the contenders during the Hogs’ recent spring practice, Head Hog Bret Bielema said Sunday.

But if the Razorbacks had to call on the backup to replace Allen, that player would be junior college transfer A.J. Derby, Bielema told the media just before entertaining a large gathering of fans at Chenal Country Club in the third “Talking Football” fund-raising event for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will hang around Monday for the Hall’s annual Celebrity Golf Classic at Chenal’s two courses. Bielema, Chaney and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson fielded questions from the fans in a question-and-answer format Sunday night.

But, before the laid-back approach to “Talking Football,” Bielema took 18 minutes of questions from the local media.

And as we expected (see Jim Harris’ column from Saturday), the quarterback situation was the one position area that induced the most questions. Allen started one game last year and played in four games in backing up the graduated Tyler Wilson. Brandon Mitchell, a fifth-year senior this fall, had the most experience of any backup but, after losing out on the quarterback derby to Allen, chose to transfer. Because Mitchell will have his UA degree this summer, he’ll have immediate eligibility at his next school.

We cut to the chase early with these questions, after Bielema said that Brandon Allen and A.J. Derby would be 1-2 in the quarterback depth chart.

Q: Could you expand on what Brandon Allen did to separate himself from the other quarterbacks:

Bielema: First I think it’s communication. As a quarterback you’re the field general, you’re the guy who is going to be out in the heat of the battle. Obviously as coaches we can do a lot of things Monday through Friday to get you where you need to be, but Saturdays are going to be about how you can handle the situation, and the communication is very critical to that.

Communication is a two-way street. It’s not just the person talking, it’s the people that are listening and being able to understand what’s going on, and he really separated himself in his ability to just just kind of be that guy out on the field and dictate what’s going on in the huddle, the pre-snap communication as well as anything that breaks down during the play itself. And really I think as he became more and more confident his throws became a little crisper, a little cleaner, a little more accurate. He’s just got better pace of the game and the players that were around him played very verywell and that made a big statement to me.

Q: Did you have an inkling before the end of spring practice that if Brandon Mitchell wasn’t in the mix to start that he would transfer?

Bielema: I suggested it to him. There wasn’t any surprise on my part. I think the spring unfolded and I knew he wasn’t going to be the starting guy. I knew as a head coach … I think the kids have an understanding of me that I would just rather sit down and talk very, very bluntly and very honestly.

So I brought him in, just said, “Brandon I think this is what you’re thinking about doing. You’ve got a chance to graduate this summer, and he kind of verified that information. I said, So let’s work together. Let me put out a release, get some schools that are interested in you, rather than doing it behind closed doors or not being out in the open. So he immediately got an inquiry like I knew he would from 5 to 10 schools. The best thing we could do for Brandon is help him through that process and let him see some places that might  have a interest and let him finish his career and his opportunity and wish him the best of luck.

Q: But you felt good enough with guys like AJ, with Buehner, the freshmen that are coming, that you’d be good at backup?

Bielema: Well I know this. You don’t want anybody in your program that could potentially take away from what other people are doing. I just felt that, as a senior and he’s been through a lot, for him to graduate and get where he needs to be, it would be a great situation for him to move on and do that. That was probably the driving force more than anything. I think every kid should leave with a great experience and for him to  be able to graduate and earn his degree and have a chance to be a starter as a senior, that’s totally understandable. It’s just like any other situation. Anybody can be gone at any given play. As a head coach I’ve learned to not to really try overanalyze or project or make anything bigger than it needs to be.

Bielema discusses AJ Derby

Bielema touched on recruiting philosophy, which starts with recruiting Arkansas high schoolers first but also means a heavier emphasis on Texas with six coaches working the Lone Star State. And he also mentioned what he anticipates in the upcoming SEC Spring Meeting at Destin, Fla., next week. The Arkansas coach hopes to get more clarification on regulations that are OK with the NCAA but not OK by SEC guidelines and he hopes to have some discussion on them.

“I understand the rules have been put in for a very good reason but as a newcomer I need to understand why and how and if that needs to be adjusted at all,” Bielema said.

“Anything that can make Arkansas great I think I have an obligation to do that. We’re in a unique situation in that fact that we’re the only BCS school in the state and with that brings some unique things on our calendar and with our rules and I want to make sure we’re putting ourselves at a competitive advantage as best we can” he said.

The coaches and administrators are likely to continue the discussion of keeping the SEC football slate at eight games or expanding to nine. Bielema, whose former league, the Big Ten, moved to nine league games last year, offered both the pro and con to the subject.

“I learned from a very wise man, Hayden Fry, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The SEC doesn’t appear to be broke with so many championships in a row,” he said, but later added, “The college football world changes so much in 2014 [with an expanded playoff]. We’re not putting ourselves in a great position if we don’t discuss it.”

For now, Arkansas fans will want to brush up on A.J. Derby’s background. And behind Derby are two more walk-ons, Brian Buehner and Taylor Reed, as well as two highly touted incoming freshmen, Austin Allen from Fayetteville (Brandon’s brother) and Damon “Du-Wop” Mitchell from New Jersey.

“I’ve known him literally since he was this tall [puts his hand about a foot above the floor]. I’m really getting old in the coaching profession, I played with his dad. So I’ve known A.J. for a long time,” Bielema said.

“When I became the head coach here, he reached out to me right away,” Bielema said. “Really didn’t see us putting a junior college quarterback on scholarship, just didn’t know enough about our situation and where we were at, but I knew we were thin at that depth chart position. A.J. turned down, he had maybe 5 or 6 Division I offers, I believe Houston and a couple of other schools, he really just wanted an opportunity to play at the highest level possible and that was the SEC and obviously a comfort level with mysef and his dad, which we knew each other very, very well which is what brought him there.

“I think if you interviewed Jim [Chaney], [A.J] was probably the guy that attacked the classroom and the learning side of our offense as good as anybody. He’s a very, very inquisitive kid. He buys into it 100 times over. Very tall, rangy, athletic. I know his time at Iowa, that actually moved him to linebacker I think a little bit, or asked him to do so because he’s a tough kid that can run.”

Bielema said that Buehner, a Louisville product, improved as spring progessed “adapting to the situation in a new offense and all that goes with it.” As for Reed, who transferred from Memphis a year ago after starting for the Tigers, Bielema said: “We continue working with him and seeing where he can go.”

The new coach had high praise for the freshmen and said he was “very, very excited” about the pair. Mitchell will not arrive for summer workouts with the team until after July 4, Bielema said. Allen only has to go a few blocks to join his brother on the practice field.

Here is highlight video of AJ Derby in action.

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