FRUSTRATED, UPSET AND WORRIED: ARKANSAS QUARTERBACK TYLER WILSON WRESTLED with those emotions as he questioned whether to remain in Fayetteville. For the homegrown talent the soul-searching long predated coach Bobby Petrino's firing, which rocked the program last spring. One of the most prolific high school passers in Arkansas history, having thrown for more than 8,000 yards and 93 touchdowns while leading tiny Greenwood (pop. 8,952) High to Class 5A state championships in 2006 and '07, Wilson rarely saw the field during the first three years of his college career. Have I chosen the wrong school? he wondered during that time. Should I transfer?
"Those things creep into your brain. It was a mental struggle because you're used to being the Guy," says Wilson, who redshirted as a freshman in 2008, then backed up Ryan Mallett for two years. "I'd call my dad and say, 'We might do this or that.' But I always wanted to be a Razorback."
That turned out to be a good thing for him—and for Arkansas. Last season Wilson completed 63.2% of his passes for 3,638 yards with 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His 1:73 picks-to-attempts ratio was the third best in SEC history among QBs with at least 300 throws in a season. It's no accident that the Razorbacks tied a school record with 11 wins in 2011 and finished fifth in the nation, their highest ranking since 1977. Now Arkansas has seven starters back on offense and its sights set on a national championship—as if the transition from Petrino to interim coach John L. Smith never happened.
Wilson, who could have declared for the NFL draft, says he was "really, really tempted" to bolt for the pros after last season. He could have made millions as a first-round pick. Consider that at Cowboys Stadium last Oct. 1, Wilson thrilled the whoooo, pig, sooey! faithful by throwing for a school-record 510 yards and rallying the Razorbacks from an 18-point halftime deficit to a 42--38 win over Texas A&M. He completed 30 of 51 passes and tossed three touchdowns, outperforming the Aggies' Ryan Tannehill, who would go on to finish the year with virtually the same statistics as Wilson and be drafted eighth overall by the Dolphins as a potential franchise savior.
But even after Petrino's ouster, with 16 days until the NFL draft, Wilson refused to reconsider his options or apply for the supplemental draft. "I vowed to my family and to my teammates that once I made my decision, I wasn't going to look back," the senior says. "The draft would have been favorable for me, but in the long term I thought I could become a better player by coming back."
Many analysts now tab Wilson as the No. 1 pick in 2013, partly due to the leadership he displayed during those two weeks in April when the Razorbacks practiced without a head coach.
"With all the turmoil in the spring, Tyler made this his team," says offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Paul Petrino, Bobby's brother. "He had a great attitude, and he got his teammates to follow. He held meetings, but mostly he just came out and practiced unbelievably [well]. His teammates see that toughness, and it makes them play harder for him."
Says Wilson, "The situation was tough because we were all kind of blindsided by it. But our goals have not changed. Everybody [here] believes we're going to be a great football team. We can compete for a national championship. I'm so glad I'm here. I'm cherishing every moment of it."