Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Same keys, new drivers
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson debated heavily on his professional future when deciding whether to enter the NFL Draft.
FAYETTEVILLE Paul Petrino returned to the Arkansas football staff last December after a two-year hiatus with the aim of winning an SEC championship with his brother, Bobby.
“Go get that done together and have our dad there and have him see it, that’d be a great thing,” Petrino said this winter.
A month later, quarterback Tyler Wilson passed up being a potentially high selection in the NFL Draft to return for his senior year at Arkansas.
“I believe I can benefit greatly from another year of working with Coach Petrino and Coach Paul Petrino,” he said at the time.
Now, Paul Petrino’s dream of teaming up for an SEC title at Arkansas with his brother is lost, and Wilson’s hopes for another year of seasoning from the brothers Petrino is dashed. Both plans were eliminated when Bobby Petrino wrecked his Harley-Davidson with a female staff member on board April 1, then lied about it and was fired nine days later.
The mastermind of the Petrino offense is gone, but the brand still lives on in Paul Petrino and Wilson, a fifth-year senior who passed for 3,638 yards last season.
“Sometimes out of bad things, good things happen,” Paul Petrino said. “You know when that happened with Bob, the two of us had to step up and lead. We kind of did it together and bonded there.”
Wilson embraces the weight of carrying on the Arkansas offense’s reputation.
“Why wouldn’t you want that to be on you?” he asked. “It feels good.”
Bobby Petrino’s offensive philosophy has been tried and tested true on all levels of college football. It’s built on the strength of a quarterback who can make quick, effective reads with the physical tools to deliver the football.
“That’s an offense that he built, that he started, and now we’ve got to make it happen,” Paul Petrino said. “Bob is not here anymore, and it’s up to us to keep that Arkansas offensive brand going.”
Film-room geeks and dedicated students of the game, Petrino and Wilson carry the keys to one of college football’s premier units.
Wilson, whose connection with Paul Petrino includes more give-and-take on his favorite calls and schemes, has shown a higher level of confidence in preparation for his final college season.
“I saw it coming back, prior to even taking the field,” Coach John L. Smith said. “It’s like he all of a sudden just keeps exuding confidence, like, ‘I know the system. I know where I have to go.’ His confidence level is through the roof.”
The Razorbacks have ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring, passing and total offense in each of the past three seasons, with one exception. Last year’s team ranked No. 29 in total offense with 438.1 yards per game.
Arkansas has increased its scoring average from 36 points a game in 2009, to 36.5 in 2010 to 36.8 in 2011.
“We’re a good offense, that’s great,” Wilson said. “How can we be the best? I think that’s our next step.”
Paul Petrino broke away from Bobby after two seasons at Arkansas to establish his own play-calling credentials outside of his brother’s shadow, and he did that to a certain extent at Illinois, a second-tier Big Ten school.
Petrino’s first Illinois offense ranked No. 11 nationally in rushing, No. 26 in scoring and No. 45 in total offense. In 2011, the numbers fell off with the Illini finishing No. 86 in total offense and No. 91 in scoring and passing.
But Illinois Coach Ron Zook got fired, and Petrino interviewed for a few positions, including the head coaching job at Alabama-Birmingham, which went to another Bobby Petrino protege’, Garrick McGee. At Bobby’s behest, Paul agreed to return to Arkansas, and his re-connect with Wilson took off immediately.
“Sometimes you just hit it off with certain people,” Paul Petrino said. “It probably started with the passion that we both have, and maybe the love. ... We both love to sit in and watch tape all the time.”
Wilson said in Paul Petrino the Razorbacks have a coordinator who cares about his players and wants them to succeed in football and life.
“He loves football,” Wilson said. “He loves being here. With that, you feel like you don’t have to hesitate to call him. Whatever it is that you need, he’s there for you. I think that’s the biggest thing for me, as a player, that you like in a coach.”
Wilson and Paul Petrino got reacquainted during bowl preparations in a tighter fashion than in Petrino’s first stint at Arkansas in 2008-2009, when he coordinated the offense and coached the receivers.
The bond continued to build after a successful Cotton Bowl performance, even as Paul Petrino focused heavily on recruiting.
“We talk on the phone a lot,” Petrino said. “We text each other a lot. We’ve just built a bond and it’s one of those things that came together.”
Wilson said he isn’t so “high-maintenance” as to need to reach out in the middle of the night, but “I feel like I could call him at midnight. I don’t think it would be anything to call him that late.”
The conversations between the two are frequent and extremely detailed. It may be something as simple as Petrino sitting on a couch in the morning and texting his quarterback about remembering something that happened early in skeleton drills the previous day, or asking Wilson what he thinks about a certain play.
“That’s the kind of relationship you have to have ... between the quarterback and the offensive coordinator,” Wilson said. “It’s huge.”
Razorbacks coaches were in full recruiting mode when Wilson debated his NFL options.
He received a strong grade from the NFL’s draft advisory board, with a chance to be in the mix with Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill as the third quarterback drafted behind highly rated Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
Wilson tried a little self-imposed test to check his own mental draft readiness.
“At one point ... I tried to put myself in position where I said, ‘OK, I’m a professional today’ and I slept on it. Then the next day I said, ‘OK, I’m back in college.’ What felt right?” Wilson said. “Was I ready to be a pro, or did I still like being in college?
“My goal is to be the best quarterback I can when I step into that position, and I think it was better that I stay around and mature, become an expert at my position in college and then see what I can do.”
Wilson went out in the spring and completed 70 percent of his passes with no interceptions in scrimmage settings. He’s thrown a few interceptions in fall camp, but he has made progress with a mostly new group of receivers while keeping veterans Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg heavily involved.
Petrino said Wilson had numerous ways to improve this season.
“He beat people physically a bunch,” Petrino said. “Now we’ve got to get it where he beats teams mentally, gets us in and out of plays so we don’t run bad plays, gets us to the right runs, the right protections. And then he can always keep improving on his footwork.”
Wilson likes the fact that Petrino has been willing to bounce ideas off of him in search of the most effective plays.
“I think the lead [initial] call will be much more in my favor this year, stuff I like to run, stuff I’m comfortable with running,” he said. “I think that’s where success starts.”
The next step
The day Athletic Director Jeff Long announced he was firing Bobby Petrino, Wilson called players back when they thought the team meeting was ending. Wilson rallied the team together and insisted their team goals were still intact.
“You talk about an evolutionary process of maturity,” Wilson said. “I had to make a number of grownup decisions regarding my future and ... obviously I stayed for a number of reasons to be a better player. Then, following that, another big-time decision hits me, and that’s whether you curl up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself or do you stand up and take it on the chest and lead and let these guys follow.
“That kind of process was good for me and helps you grow up.”
His offensive coordinator took note.
“What he did was, he took that field every day at practice with a look in his eye and a determination that this is how I’m going to flipping work and you guys better do it too,” Petrino said.
Bobby Petrino’s departure impacted the entire team, but perhaps no one more than his brother.
“Obviously, it was a tough time when there’s a family issue,” Wilson said. “But he came to work each and every day with the mind-set that we’re out to prove something. I really commend him on that. He didn’t show a whole lot of emotion during all that. He was a ball coach.
“It was a tough time period, but he did his job.”
Petrino did not hesitate to say he and the offensive coaches have more on their plates.
“No question,” he said. “We kind of lost an offensive coach. We have an extra coach on defense because Bob was always with the offense. So there’s a little bit more on all of us.
“We’re up for it. It’s going to be fun and we’re going to go get it done.”
Wilson sounded equally geared up for the task.
“We want to be the best offense playing in the best conference against the best defenses,” Wilson said. “If we can do that, that’s the ultimate.”
m Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson, who took the reins at Arkansas on the heels of the prolific Ryan Mallett, owns nine school records:
Passing yards (game) 510 (Texas A&M, 2011)
Total yards (game) 481 (Texas A&M, 2011)
Completion pct. (career) .629
Consecutive passes w/o INT 184 (2011)
Total plays (season) 498 (2011)
Total plays (game) 57 (Texas A&M, 2011)
Pass attempts (season) 438 (2011)
Passes completed (season) 277 (2011)
Passes completed (game) 32 (2011)