George Schroeder
Friday October 23rd, 2009

The map pointed him south. Instead, he hung a right at St. Louis. Several hours later, Ryan Mallett called his father:

"Do you know where I am?"

Somewhere on the road, Jim Mallett figured, headed home from Ann Arbor.

"I'm sitting here in Fayetteville," Ryan Mallett said, "looking down at the football field. It's an awful pretty sight."

Jim Mallett knew what that meant. The Mallett family lives in Texarkana, Ark., five hours south of Fayetteville, Ark. But at that moment, Ryan Mallett was home.

"He was always a Razorback at heart," Jim Mallett said.

Not long after that phone call, Ryan Mallett's transfer from Michigan to Arkansas became official. And it's only now, almost two years later, that college football is starting to comprehend what that move might mean.

Bobby Petrino's Razorbacks are 3-3 overall, and just 1-3 in the SEC. But for those looking for a second-half surprise, this might be the bunch. The biggest reason (maybe literally) is the franchise quarterback who dropped in on Petrino one January day in 2008.

After watching from the sidelines last season as Arkansas struggled, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Mallett has jumpstarted the second-year coach's rebuilding project. Arkansas appears ready to make a run at becoming bowl-eligible, and maybe for a move up the SEC standings. It's too late for this season, but if the upward trajectory continues, Mallett has to be considered a serious Heisman Trophy contender for 2010.

A shaky defense has improved in the last few weeks, and Arkansas boasts several playmakers at running back and receiver, but the catalyst for the Razorbacks' recovery is Mallett's rocket of a right arm. Arkansas averages 34.5 points and 436 yards a game. Mallett averages 274 yards passing and has thrown for 14 touchdowns and three interceptions -- "and we've still got so much room for improvement, it's not even funny," he said.

Mallett's not the only one who believes in the Hogs' offense.

"You add Ryan Mallett to the recipe and everything gets a lot better," said former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, whose Ole Miss team will host the Razorbacks on Saturday. "That guy can throw the ball. There is not one throw that he can't make."

Before Mallett had thrown a pass for the Hogs, the legend was already growing. Tight end D.J. Williams claimed last summer Mallett's fastball clocked at 115 mph, and wondered how fast the quarterback could throw a baseball. Meanwhile, Mallett has told people he can throw a football 80 yards. That one might not be an exaggeration.

Last Saturday against Florida, he connected with receiver Greg Childs for a 75-yard touchdown pass. OK, the football only flew about 40 yards. But it was a heat-seeking missile, thrown on the run as Mallett stepped up to avoid pressure.

Yeah, the guy can throw the ball. Even when he was a little guy, a third- or fourth-grade ball boy for the high school teams his father coached, he had a big arm.

"He could wing it," Jim Mallett said. "He was zinging it out there to the officials every time they needed a ball."

This was when the family lived in Lincoln, a small town 20 minutes west of Fayetteville. And this was when Ryan became a Razorback fan, attending games, telling everyone he wanted to play football, basketball and baseball at Arkansas.

Even when the family moved away -- Jim Mallett coached first in Hooks, Texas, and then in Texarkana, on the Texas side of State Line Avenue -- the Razorbacks remained the youngster's true love. But by the time Mallett had grown into one of the nation's top recruits at Texas High, Arkansas wasn't on his wish list.

There are two versions of how Mallett found his way to Michigan -- or more to the point, why he didn't go to Arkansas. Jim Mallett called it "a numbers game," but the number was one: Mitch Mustain, another highly touted quarterback, was already in Fayetteville, a year ahead of Mallett.

There was more, though. A turbulent soap opera enveloped that program, and would eventually lead to Nutt's exit. When Mustain (and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn) departed in January 2007, almost a year before Nutt, suddenly there was room on the roster for another franchise quarterback.

But by then Mallett wasn't interested in joining what he called a "circus."

"I always liked the university," he said. "It's just all that stuff was going on."

Instead Mallett headed for Ann Arbor, where he seemed destined to become the Wolverines' next great passer. As a true freshman, he started three games in place of injured starter Chad Henne; he completed 16-of-19 passes for 170 yards and ran for a touchdown in Michigan's upset of Penn State.

"You could see that competitiveness and calm under pressure," former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You knew he was going to be a good one."

But Carr retired, Rich Rodriguez replaced him, and it was clear a tall, heavy pocket passer wasn't going to run the spread option. Mallett packed his Yukon and headed home.

Along with Arkansas, Mallett considered Tennessee and UCLA. But as he drove south, he chatted with an old friend, Arkansas tight end Ben Cleveland. After they talked, Mallett made a quick decision, detouring through Fayetteville to meet with Petrino.

When he called home from that perch above Razorback Stadium, his father figured the decision was all but made. Jim and Debbie Mallett visited with Petrino, too, and a few days later, the Razorbacks had their franchise quarterback.

"I love it," Mallett said. "It's playing for the hometown team I grew up loving to watch play, and I was the biggest fan of them. It's like a dream come true for me."

Mallett said he matured during his year on the sideline, mandated by the NCAA's transfer rules. He also morphed. When he arrived on campus weighing 265 pounds, the former Michigan Man looked more like, as he put it, the Michelin Man. Now 30 pounds lighter, he moves better.

The result is just the right fit for Petrino's multi-faceted, pro-style attack, which Mallett has likened to driving a Maserati, "looking at all the switches and seeing what it'll do."

It has been an impressive show, with one glaring exception. Alabama whipped Arkansas 35-7 in Tuscaloosa last month, leading many to wonder if the Razorbacks were ready for prime time.

"We knew we were better than that," Mallett said. "We turned it on after that."

Arkansas blew out Texas A&M in a game played at Jerry Jones' new Cowboys Stadium, then whipped Auburn in Fayetteville. And last week, Florida escaped the Hogs' upset bid with a last-second field goal, helped along by questionable officiating (see the SEC's suspension of the crew).

It wasn't one of Mallett's better performances; he was uncharacteristically inaccurate (12-of-27 for 224 yards), and the misfires included overthrowing an open receiver in the end zone. But he made some big plays, too, including that long TD pass, and the Razorbacks provided evidence they can compete with the SEC's upper tier.

"We're excited about what we can do," Mallett said. "We're just looking forward to the rest of the season."

They should be, considering the most difficult portion of the schedule is behind them. They'll play four of their final six at home (though the toughest remaining opponents, which figure to be Ole Miss and LSU, are on the road). Behind its emerging star, Arkansas appears primed for a surge.

"Couldn't have worked out any better for him," Carr said. "It's the perfect situation."

Couldn't have worked out much better for anyone, really. Clearly, Mallett is right at home.

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