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.
ARKANSAS FOOTBALL The quarterbacks:
Bielema believes in Allen
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen (10) drops back in the first half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
FAYETTEVILLE -- When things go bad in college football, the starting quarterback often shoulders a huge chunk of the blame.
The scenario is repeated at outposts across the country each fall, and it came tumbling down onto Brandon Allen in his first season as a starter at Arkansas last year.
RETURNING STARTER Brandon Allen
LOSSES AJ Derby, Damon Mitchell
WHO’S BACK Austin Allen
WHO’S NEW Rafe Peavey
WALK-ON Troy Allison
ANALYSIS If the Razorbacks are to make a move this fall, Brandon Allen has to be at the forefront of the improvement. Not only did Allen have issues with throwing on balance in the first year of the offense, he struggled with decision-making at key moments, all while playing injured. It all made for a forgettable season from a quarterbacking standpoint. Austin Allen showed notable improvement early in camp and should start taking game reps in some of the early games in case he’s needed later. Peavey is on a fast learning track but not in position to challenge yet. Derby and Mitchell, moved to tight end and receiver, are considered fall-back options.
Allen's numbers were bad by any standard. His 109.0 efficiency rating -- a statistic that factors in yards per pass with the frequency of touchdowns and interceptions -- was 99th among the 104 quarterbacks ranked in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Extenuating factors? Sure, there were plenty.
Allen took over an offense that was undergoing an overhaul to a run and play-action approach in the first season under Coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Allen did not have a deep, fast or overly talented receiving corps at his disposal, nor a dominating defense. To top it off, he separated the AC joint in his throwing shoulder when he dove into the end zone to score against Southern Mississippi in the third game, which turned out to be Arkansas' final victory of the season.
Allen sat out a game at Rutgers the next week, proceeded to miss practices every week even after he returned to the lineup, took injections to deal with the pain and did not take a snap while fully healthy in a conference game.
The end result: Allen struggled, the offense struggled and the Razorbacks struggled, staggering to a 3-9 record while dropping their final nine games.
"It's not something you want to be a part of, but it's already happened," Allen said. "We own up to our season and ... it's up to us to change it, to be about the future now and to be about the new brand of Arkansas football."
Allen, who was selected as an offensive captain this week, didn't mope as he and his team struggled nor did he lash out when he returned home from a loss to Mississippi State in Little Rock to find his truck had been pelted with eggs.
Allen finally started feeling good enough that he stopped receiving shots for pain a couple of weeks after Arkansas' season finale, a 31-27 loss at LSU. More rest was in order, then Allen began restoring strength in his right shoulder with the help of trainer Matt Summers and strength coach Ben Herbert.
There was still so much to do.
Allen stayed in the video room, looking for any edge he could find.
"I basically watched the most film you could probably watch from last year and really critiqued every area of my game and what I could do to make myself a better player and help this team win more ball games," he said.
He did more than watch.
Allen flew to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., during the summer, with the approval of Bielema and Chaney, and took lessons from Chris Weinke, the Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State and a respected quarterback technician.
"I went down there and it was huge," Allen said. "I learned a lot of things from him, mainly a lower half, a base and a footwork kind of deal. I think that's really helped me a lot this year, just in the pocket and a lot with accuracy and on ball strength."
Instruction and encouragement from Chaney continued after his mid-summer return, and Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr., a former Arkansas quarterback, helped provide context to what Allen was going through.
"My relation and my angle with Brandon is simply, 'Hey, I've been in your shoes. I know what it's like to be from Arkansas. I know what it's like to be the guy. I know what it's like to get a lot of blame. I know what it's like to get credit, and I know what it's like to play at a time where there's transition, where you kind of say maybe you're in a rebuilding or reshaping of a program mode,' " said Lunney, adding that Chaney is the "finest quarterback mentor" he's been around.
Lunney said he could also relate to Allen's struggle with the AC joint separation.
"My sophomore year, I had to get injections in my AC joint for four, five weeks straight on game days just to be able to play, and it affected me greatly," he said. "So here I am on the staff watching him go through [it]. The fact was he wasn't healthy. I knew what he was going through. I knew how it was affecting him, and he's as tough as a boot. He is.
"People can say this, that or the other thing. One thing, if you said he's not tough, you're crazy."
Now Allen is working on building his mental edge to go with his improved health and arm strength.
"When you work something so hard and you invest so much, there's a level of confidence that you have to develop and he's at that point right now," Chaney said. "It's time for Brandon to go on the field and play a game."
Bielema has been on the bullhorn in support in Allen's progress and his prospects throughout the summer and camp.
"The kid buys in and he's been a tremendous worker," Bielema said. "What we see as coaches is a lot different from what the outside world, media and fans see. It's the things we know are reality.
"You're talking about Jim Chaney, a guy that knows quarterback play, has seen great quarterbacks, understands quarterbacks and he's very, very excited. That to me is proof in itself that we're on the right path."
Bielema said Allen is more in command because he has confidence in himself and the players around him and that the offense is his.
"When your coach has that much confidence in you to be the guy, it only boosts your confidence as a player," Allen said. "I think they have a lot more confidence compared to last year in our passing game, which is huge.
"There were probably times last year where things weren't clicking where they maybe started dialing it back a little bit, trying to get a few short completions. I think the confidence this year is going to be off the charts. We've just got to go prove it to them."
Sports on 08/17/2014