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Austin Allen back, but will he start?
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen warms up prior to a game against South Carolina on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Columbia, S.C.
FAYETTEVILLE Bret Bielema insists he's not keeping a secret about who will be Arkansas' quarterback against LSU on Saturday.
The Razorbacks coach, however, is intent on letting a full week of practice play out before he decides between senior Austin Allen and freshman Cole Kelley.
It's a choice that would have been a no-brainer for Bielema and in the eyes of most Arkansas (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) followers at any point before Allen hurt a shoulder against South Carolina on Oct. 7.
Now, with Kelley having played well in Allen's four-game absence — including leading back-to-back comeback victories over Mississippi and Coastal Carolina — no one is quite sure if Bielema is playing mind games with the Tigers (6-3, 3-2) or being sincere about the possibility of Arkansas' first quarterback controversy in his five seasons at the school.
"The good news is we've got a couple of good quarterbacks and you obviously feel great about either one of them, whoever it is," Bielema said.
The Allen name has been a constant under Bielema's watch since he arrived in Fayetteville from Wisconsin following the 2012 season. Older brother Brandon Allen was already on campus and won a brief competition with former Arkansas quarterback Brandon Mitchell in Bielema's first spring.
Mitchell, frustrated at the time that Bielema publicly mentioned the possibility of him moving to wide receiver without talking to him first, transferred to North Carolina State. That led to a three-year run as the starter at quarterback for Allen.
After Allen graduated, little brother Austin was the clear favorite to take over at quarterback for the Razorbacks after having spent three years on the sidelines. And he showed his potential last season as a junior, finishing second in the SEC in passing efficiency despite playing behind an offensive line that allowed 35 sacks after giving up only 14 the year before.
The protection woes have worsened this season for the Razorbacks, who have allowed 28 sacks through nine games, and it showed as Allen struggled early in the season. After completing 61.1 percent of his passes last season, Allen had completed only 56.4 percent before the injury against the Gamecocks that has kept him out of action the last four weeks.
Now he's back at what he called "close to 100 percent" healthy and more appreciative than ever for the chance to possibly help Arkansas rebound from a difficult season in time to still earn its fourth straight bowl appearance.
"It kind of took me away, and now that I'm back it just gives you a breath of fresh air," Allen said. "I feel like a little leaguer or in the boys and girls club out there, just having fun playing football with my friends."
Bielema said he planned to play Allen in a limited role last week against Coastal Carolina. However, he changed his mind during the game and didn't want Allen's first return to action to come in a game where the Razorbacks appeared on their way to disaster while trailing by two scores in the fourth quarter.
Instead, Kelley remained in for the entire game and helped Arkansas rebound for the 39-38 win — a week after he led the Razorback back from 31-7 down against Ole Miss for an improbable 38-37 victory . The 6-foot-7 Kelley has now accounted for 10 touchdowns (8 passing, 2 rushing) this season while throwing three interceptions.
"One thing you can't take away from somebody is, once they've done it, they've done it. He's had two come-from-behind wins at Ole Miss and last week's home game here," Bielema said.
Bielema said Kelley was in a walking boot this week after suffering a turf toe injury against Coastal Carolina, but that was one of the few details the embattled Razorbacks coach offered about who might be his quarterback Saturday.
"I'm not really trying to keep a secret as much as we're just going to put the best guy in there that's going to give us a chance to win," Bielema said.
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