Jim Harris: Arkansas Backup Quarterbacks Get Looks Elsewhere


Razorback Backup Quarterback News Sets Tongues Wagging

Bret Bielema can keep the media and the fans out of practices, but tongues still wag. There were observers of Tuesday’s Razorback practice who passed along the information that Razorback backup quarterback A.J. Derby had worked some at tight end.

And, see, when a backup quarterback like A.J. Derby gets work elsewhere, it gets noticed. It gets other tongues wagging. Derby unfairly gets criticized for not being good enough to step in for injured starter Brandon Allen at Rutgers last year and hold on to a 24-7 lead when he did nothing to lose that game. The coaching staff gets unfairly criticized for not having one of the scholarship freshmen — specifically Brandon’s brother, Austin Allen — ready to step in at Rutgers, instead of a junior college transfer walk-on, even though true freshmen rarely can play Division-I college football the first month they’ve been in school.

Then, there was that convenient familiarity that UA head coach Bret Bielema had with Derby’s father, a former college teammate, that led many to think Derby was afforded the backup role simply as favoritism over more talented freshmen. Consider that without that relationship, Arkansas wouldn’t have Derby at all. Every school needs a guy who carries himself like Derby even if he doesn’t perform at quarterback like Peyton Manning or Russell Wilson.

This spring, fans not only want to see significant snaps for Austin Allen, but also for Rafe Peavey, who is skipping the spring semester of his high school senior year to participate in Arkansas’ spring practice.

So, sure enough, in Thursday’s practice that was open to the media, A.J. Derby was lined up all day at tight end. Damon “Duwop” Mitchell, a redshirt freshman also competing for the quarterback job, took a few snaps late in practice at wide receivers, according to reports.

Mitchell, according to observers, is an impressive athlete with a strong arm (so too was Brandon Mitchell, not related to Duwop but forever in the talk at quarterback in the Bobby Petrino years before transferring last season to North Carolina State) but has displayed little accuracy in the short throws. A quarterback who cannot complete the short crossing routes and swing passes and tosses in the flats should be a quarterback not throwing at all. A team with a quarterback who can’t throw accurate will be wiped out in SEC play — though, yes, it’s hard to imagine a season any worse than what the Hogs experienced in 2012-13 with passing quarterbacks.

Peavey, like Austin Allen last season, probably requires a redshirt season to sit and learn, but Arkansas also needs a guy who brings an “it” factor to quarterback — that special something one could see in the likes of smallish Bill Montgomery many years ago, or Scott Bull, or Quinn Grovey, or Barry Lunney Jr., or Clint Stoerner. Those players, no matter their level of gifts, made everyone around them better.

After LSU’s spring practice ended last weekend, the Tigers had found their true freshman with the “it” factor at quarterback in Brandon Harris, who like Peavey, skipped his spring high school semester to win the job. So, even though freshman Anthony Jennings marched LSU 99 yards to a last-minute win over Arkansas last November, he’ll be behind Harris as the Tigers quarterback in August.

Peavey, meanwhile, showed anyone who watched a televised January prep all-star game that while he may lack height and great running speed, and while his arm may not be in the Ryan Mallett category, he brought something to the huddle that stood out that night. He moved his team to touchdowns. While he did that over and over in Missouri high school football, he played on a team in a town about the size of Stuttgart (Bolivar, Mo., on what compares to the Class 4A level in Arkansas), and the competition left concerns for those who make a living rating high school quarterbacks’ abilities.

Peavey began the spring with four quarterbacks in front of him, including last year’s starter in 11 games, Brandon Allen. If Mitchell plays significant snaps Saturday atrazorback backup quarterback wide receiver in another open-to-the-public scrimmage, that number will be down to two, the Allen brothers.

Brandon Allen is coming off a shoulder separation that gets a lot of the blame for his subpar play last year as a sophomore. We’ll remind folks that Clint Stoerner, while he was a senior, quarterbacked Arkansas to wins over No. 2 Tennessee and hated Texas in 1999 with the same type of injury.

Austin Allen doesn’t appear to possess as strong an arm as his brother does now. On Thursday, Brandon Allen was spotty in pass-skeleton drills, we’re told. But for now he is all the experience the Razorbacks possess. Yes, we expect Brandon Allen will still start the Auburn game Aug. 30, barring unforeseen injury, but questions will abound whether he can truly lead Arkansas to SEC wins, or whether there is a capable hand behind him if he can’t.

All this is to say, we don’t expect Arkansas to have its quarterback situation solved when spring practice concludes with the Red-White Game on April 26.

That, too, will be open for everyone to see.

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