After 2010 breakthrough, Arkansas aiming higher with Wilson at helm
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- There wasn't time to be nervous. Maybe that's why the magnitude of the moment didn't hit him until long after. The starter went down. They called his name. He started tossing touchdown passes, playing pinball wizard in one of the most exciting games of the 2010 season.
Wilson understands the current moment, though: It's his turn.
Arkansas' run to the Sugar Bowl last season was a breakthrough performance. But was the Razorbacks' first BCS bowl a fluke, one team riding the big arm of a home-state legend? In the ever-tough SEC West, it's easy to forecast a fallback. LSU will be in everybody's top five. Alabama, too. Mississippi State is rising. Auburn has plenty of holes to fill, but is the defending national champion. Ole Miss ... well, no one's really sure what to expect from the Rebels.
But what's next for Arkansas after Mallett? The answer begins with figuring out who's next.
"I'm definitely interested in being that guy," said Wilson, who hasn't been named the starter, but is the heavy favorite to win the job.
Weird, but the Razorbacks don't seem very anxious about replacing their alltime leading passer, and there's a growing confidence about the program's immediate future. Maybe that's in part because of what everyone saw from Mallett's backup last October.
"We believe this year can be a special year," Wilson said, "and we can do things that we haven't done here before."
Sounds crazy, considering the Hogs just finished doing things they hadn't done before. Mallett left owning 45 school records (set in only two years), and until last season, Arkansas had been a consistent member of the SEC's second tier. Mallett's impact on the program shouldn't be underestimated. But to reduce the Razorbacks' 2010 success to Mallett is an oversimplification.
The quarterback was the catalyst, but the Hogs developed a running game behind Knile Davis, who finished second in the SEC in rushing last season with 1,322 yards, trailing only some guy named Cam. The receiving corps might be the nation's best. The defense became credible, if not dominant. In his fourth spring practice at Arkansas, coach Bobby Petrino thinks the program is headed rapidly in the right direction.
"I feel like we're a much better football team," Petrino said. "We're starting to look like you should look."
With 15 returning starters, all of the above units should be as good next fall, if not better. Arkansas must replace three offensive linemen, which is never an easy task, but the early schedule -- home games with Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy before a trip to Tuscaloosa -- couldn't be better set up to help them develop.
That's true for Mallett's replacement, as well. Wilson, a fourth-year junior, is competing this spring with Brandon Mitchell, a sophomore, and Jacoby Walker, a redshirt freshman. But while no one will say it, the job is Wilson's to lose. Or more to the point, the Razorbacks think it's his turn to win.
Wilson's edge in experience is important. He's had thousands of repetitions in Petrino's scheme. A year ago, when Mallett was recovering from foot surgery, Wilson took the bulk of the first-team snaps in spring practice, but he and everyone else knew it was Mallett's job when he returned. It wasn't until Mallett was knocked woozy against Auburn that Wilson's turn came, at least for a few moments.
Wilson came on in the second quarter and threw for 332 yards -- the 14th-best performance in school history. After missing his first pass, he completed 14 straight. Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, the Hogs grabbed a 43-37 lead on Wilson's fourth touchdown pass. And there came a point, though he's not sure exactly when, that he recognized what was happening. He was locked into an improbable duel with Cam Newton. Or just locked in.
"You go, 'wow,' and pinch yourself," Wilson said. "And the reality kind of sets in. It was just a really good feeling. The first few plays were successful and I kind of got in a rhythm."
It didn't last. Maybe it couldn't. Wilson threw two interceptions as Auburn pulled away in the fourth quarter. According to Petrino, one was the receiver's fault. Earlier in the game, Wilson had thrown a touchdown on the same play; this time the receiver broke off the route. And the other? "I think he just blew it," Petrino said. "He didn't see the middle linebacker."
But the coach also said Wilson never lost his poise. What's amazing is that he had it.
"He didn't have any panic to him," Petrino said. "He didn't have any mental errors. He just came out and did what he can do."
That's all Petrino wants from Wilson now, after Mallett jumped to the NFL a year early. The 6-foot-3, 215 pound Wilson doesn't have Mallett's big arm, but few do. He's accurate and much more mobile. Watch the Auburn tape. After Wilson's third-quarter touchdown pass to Joe Adams, analyst Gary Danielson hyperbolized: "There's not a backup in the country that can throw a ball like that. You can't do it any better than that." Wilson also completed passes after scrambling away from trouble. He threw on the run, with weird angles and release points.
Wilson's biggest area for improvement, Petrino said, is trusting what he sees, and then attacking. It was that confidence -- sometimes overconfidence -- that helped make Mallett so successful. Petrino wants to see it from Wilson.
"Sometimes it's easier to come off the bench and go out there and wing it around and light it up," Petrino said. "The challenge is now when you are the guy, preparing for it and doing it."
Like Mallett, Wilson grew up following the Hogs, but their stories might diverge there. Wilson is more reserved, a quieter type (though by comparison, who isn't?). Brash and bold, Mallett didn't just embrace the idea of being a home-state legend -- he planted the seed. He followed through, too. But you wondered how close to the edge the guy wanted to dance.
Wilson calls it "a dream come true to yell out the snap count" at Arkansas. He's not making any predictions of glory. But he's also not shying away from the task of following Mallett's larger-than-life accomplishments. In a way, he's been there, done that.
"He's filled big shoes before," said Greenwood (Ark.) High coach Rick Jones.
In Greenwood, about an hour south of Fayetteville, Wilson was marinated in one of the state's best spread offenses. But when Wilson took over at quarterback as a junior, he followed a star. After leading the Bulldogs to the state championship, Daniel Stegall had signed with Miami, then opted for baseball when the New York Mets drafted him in the seventh round. No one was sure what to expect from his replacement.
But in Wilson's first season as starter, Greenwood won another state title. Wilson led the Bulldogs to the championship in the final minute, scrambling to throw a touchdown pass with 12 seconds left, then converting a two-point conversion for a 56-55 win over Pulaski Academy. Before the final drive, Jones pulled the quarterback aside to steady his nerves, then realized it wasn't necessary.
"It was just, 'What do we need to do here,' and 'Let's go,'" Jones recalled. "He's just calm under pressure. He's been on the big stage."
Which is why Jones, who admits his bias, believes Wilson will succeed. Arkansas' Class 5A isn't SEC football, not by a long shot. But that October afternoon in Auburn seemed to offer evidence that the high school coach might be right.
So when Petrino says the program is in a better place than it's been during his tenure, think of the running game and all of those talented receivers. Note the Razorbacks' apparent defensive growth. No one is glossing over the challenge of replacing the bulk of the offensive line. Realists recognize following Mallett isn't a simple challenge.
"There are still a lot of questions there, that's for sure," Petrino said. "We've got to go out and prove it."
But given what we've already seen from Wilson, there's reason to believe the Hogs' ultimate goal for 2011 isn't a completely crazy notion.
"We're definitely going to set our sights to be in New Orleans again," Wilson said. "At the later game."