Wilson is Arkansas’ Answer
By BJ Bennett
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In a span of a couple of seasons, Arkansas' Tyler Wilson has gone from depth chart filler to one of the most powerful names in college football's top conference.
Two years ago Arkansas redshirt sophomore Tyler Wilson was nothing more than a backup to heralded flame-thrower Ryan Mallett. The gem of Bobby Petrino's spread offense, Mallett was fresh off a 2009 campaign where he led the league in passing yards (3,624) and passing touchdowns (30). While he would go on to do the same for an encore the following fall, a mid-September shot to the brow left Mallett woozy with a concussion and left the door cracked open for the team's top reserve.
The circumstance, depending on your competitive makeup, was either ideal or disastrous. Trailing on the road at 7th ranked Auburn, Wilson stepped in for one of the most proven passers in the nation. His counterpart that afternoon, future Heisman Trophy winner and number one overall NFL Draft pick Cameron Newton, was comfortably dissecting the Razorback defense. Despite the long odds, Wilson countered Newton's 328 total yards and four total scores with 332 passing yards and four touchdown throws of his own. He began play with 15 consecutive passes completed. The end result was over 1,000 combined yards of total offense and the highest-scoring regulation game in SEC history.
"You've got to be ready when your number is called. And for a while there we knew that Ryan wasn't going to be ready to go. You've got to prepare yourself mentally, and I thought we did a pretty good job of that this week. I think I prepared myself pretty well," Wilson said of the Razorbacks' 65-43 loss to the Tigers.
With Mallett back in the lineup, Wilson would go on to attempt just 14 throws the rest of the season. His standout performance on the Plains, albeit in a losing effort, faded into the back pages. Mallett would lead Arkansas on a six-game winning streak following the Auburn loss, edging nationally-ranked South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU along the way. The Hogs' season, and Mallett's college career, would end with a BCS near-miss in New Orleans against Ohio State.
After the program's first Sugar Bowl berth since 1970, Wilson entered 2011 with the pressure of replacing one of the school's most accomplished quarterbacks ever and the expectations of furthering the ascension of a team that had increased its win total in each of the first three years of the Petrino era. A devastating spring injury to All-SEC tailback Knile Davis only put more on the shoulders of a quarterback entering his redshirt junior year with zero career starts on his resume. Davis led all SEC tailbacks with 1,473 rushing yards in 2010, adding 13 rushing touchdowns and 19 catches out of the backfield.
While he had largely gained the benefit of the doubt, the season started with some fans and some in the national media constantly measuring Wilson to his recently-drafted predecessor. A 3-1 September start, where he threw an interception in each of his FBS games and the 'Hogs lost by 24 points at Alabama, chipped away at the momentum of both Wilson and his team. From that point on, however, Arkansas would rally to an 8-1 finish. Victories over rival Texas A&M and top 15-residing Auburn and South Carolina in the regular season would help boost the program's national national stature. Wilson would prove to be the catalyst. In his first season as starter, he led the conference in passing yards, led the division in touchdown passes and compiled the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of any starter in the league. He became the first quarterback in school history to earn first-team All-SEC honors.
After settling in under center in his first month as starter, Wilson would throw 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions over the final nine games of the year. Earlier in the season, he threw for a school-record 510 yards at Cowboys Stadium in the aforementioned triumph over the Aggies. He finished the year in that same venue, throwing two passing touchdown passes in a 29-16 victory over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. That afternoon, Wilson set new school records in passes attempted and passes completed in a single season. With the victory, Arkansas won eleven games for just the third time in history. The Razorbacks finished 5th in both major polls, their highest postseason showing in well over three decades.
"This past year was great for us with 11 wins and a top-five finish and we want to build on that. The group of players we have returning has high expectations and wants to work hard to compete for championships," Wilson explained upon announcing he was returning for his senior season.
After it appeared Wilson had seamlessly positioning the Razorbacks for a run at the national championship, replacing a program star along the way, Arkansas' off-season was completely derailed by a suspicious early April motorcycle accident involving head coach Bobby Petrino. From lies to cover-ups, an unfortunate story of adultery and occupational favoritism unfolded. Petrino was ultimately fired for not disclosing all information to school athletic director Jeff Long, actions which included hiring his mistress to a post within the department. The news left a team directly in title discussions this off-season completely stunned, without a leader mere months before the start of the year.
"Obviously, it's been tough on everybody," Wilson stated of Petrino's dismissal. "It's a unique situation. It's tough for everybody, but I think it's unique that our team has been very coherent through all of it."
With interim head coach John L. Smith on the sidelines and a record 45,250 in the stands, it was Wilson who helped Arkansas move forward with a stellar spring game showing. The senior completed 31-of-41 passes for 467 yards and three touchdowns in a near-perfect scrimmage performance. His red team pasted the white team by a final score of 65-0. Wilson's totals turned heads. His tone turned the page.
"That's a time where usually the head football coach speaks to us and talks to us going into the locker room," Wilson talked of delivering the pre-game speech to his teammates. "I just said, 'Hey, we're all out here together.'"
Minus Petrino, the leadership hierarchy at UA is a non-traditional one. Especially for a team with championship aspirations. While Smith brings considerable experience to the coaching staff and numerous assistants are nationally-recognized veterans, it's Arkansas' quarterback who many on the team will continue to look towards as the season approaches. Entering the fall with All-American attention, Wilson is more than just the team's best player. With questions swirling, he's the team's best bet as well.
"Wilson is the face of the program in my mind," Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes added. "Tyler and Knile, guys like that, they've proven it so they deserve it."
As if the Greenwood-native needs anything else to consider in lieu of his senior year, his draft stock appears to be at an all-time high. Though reactions from this past April's draft are still coming in, Wilson is one of the players creating an early buzz for next spring. Andrew Perloff of SI.com has Wilson, not USC's Matt Barkley, going first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars in his 2013 mock NFL Draft. Various other mock drafts have Wilson being selected in the top five. As Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were constantly compared throughout their junior years, Wilson will likely spend this fall being measured to Barkley.
Wilson has already been faced with the difficult task of replacing the SEC's back-to-back leading passer. In some ways, he's now being asked to step in for a departed head coach. His new goal, minus three drafted receivers off of last year's team, is simply to overtake recent national champions Alabama and LSU in the SEC West, position Arkansas for a run at the BCS title and do so while playing up to the constant scrutiny of being a potential number one pick. For a player whose introduction to the spotlight came on the road against the eventual Heisman Trophy winner and eventual national champs, the script is par for the course.
In a span of a couple of seasons, Wilson has gone from depth chart filler to one of the most powerful names in college football's top conference. He's gone toe-to-toe with a future All-Pro, stepped in for one the program's best at his position and is now being asked to fill the leadership void left by his notorious head coach. Throughout his career, Wilson has emerged as the answer to a number of difficult questions. As the game wonders where the Razorbacks will go from here, their senior quarterback likely has a pretty good idea.