Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Remembering Tarvaris Jackson
Arkansas quarterback Tarvaris Jackson throws a pass during a scrimmage Saturday, April 13, 2002, in Fayetteville.
David Lee’s coaching career includes strong-armed passers like Tony Romo, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Pennington in the NFL, and prolific run-pass collegians like Quinn Grovey and Matt Jones.
None possessed a better arm than Tarvaris Jackson, Lee said Tuesday as he remembered the former Arkansas quarterback who was killed in a car wreck Sunday.
Lee was the assistant coach at Arkansas in 2001 when the quarterback room overflowed with NFL talent. Matt Jones would later be drafted in the first round as a wide receiver, Jackson in the second and Ryan Sorahan signed as a free agent. Dowell Loggains is now the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets.
“We also had Zak Clark who had a record-breaking career at UCA,” Lee said. “And, the guy in the room who answered all the questions was Dowell. He’s been an offensive coordinator for four NFL teams.
“That was the most talented quarterback rooms I’ve ever been a part of in my 30-year coaching career and I’ve had some good ones. I give Houston Nutt the credit. He signed all of them. They were all there when I got to Arkansas.”
Several in Lee's quarterback room went into coaching. In addition to Loggains, Clark is now the head coach at Springdale High School - in the same conference with another former Lee quarterback, Casey Dick at Fayetteville High - and Jackson was gearing up for his third season coaching college football at Tennessee State.
"I was excited that Tarvaris was getting into coaching," Loggains said. "I think he was going to be an awesome coach with a lot to teach youngsters.
"His ability to communicate was outstanding. I think he had the ability to coach kids hard, but also love on them. He was wired to be a great coach."
Lee, who is now a consultant for the Miami Dolphins, had three stints as an assistant coach at Arkansas.
He coached quarterbacks for Ken Hatfield from 1984-88, developing Grovey. Nutt hired Lee in 2001 to install option packages that featured Jones, then again in 2007 when a backfield with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis broke records.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach some great people," Lee said. "Tarvaris is sure be one I’d count as that, just a great person.
“I’d say his bad luck was that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He got to Arkansas the same time as Matt Jones, a 4.37 guy and 6-6 who could really run the mid-line option and zone read. And, he was at Minnesota when Brett Farve appeared. Then, he was at Seattle when Russell Wilson got there.
“How about that for misfortune in your career as a quarterback? That’s just wrong timing.”
Lee said that none threw the ball with any more velocity than Jackson, a Razorback in 2001 and 2002 before finishing his college career as a two-time all-conference quarterback at Alabama State.
“We played him a little as a freshman before he was injured (shoulder). He threw nine passes," Lee said. "He threw 39 in his second year, after we got the medical redshirt back.
“Of course, everyone knows how he threw it. But the number one thing, he was a great person with a great heart. He was fun, loyal and loved ball. His best buddy was Matt Jones. I texted Matt when I learned of the car wreck and Matt texted back, ‘My best friend.’ Everyone loved him.”
Loggains was sending group texts about Jackson's death early Monday.
"Our room was special, those guys like Tarvaris, Matt, Zak and Ryan," Loggains said. "Robby Hampton played with him one year, too, so I sent a group text to all of our guys.
"I kept up with Tarvaris because he was in the league for 10 years with me. That's hard to do, stay in our league for 10 years. He did it because of that big arm. Ryan Mallett may take offense, but Tarvaris threw harder than Ryan Mallett. I can say it, because I saw both throw in the league at the same time.
"I'd see him after games. Just a great guy to see running across the field, just special."
The arm was special.
“From point A to point B, to throw it 70 yards, no one could do it better,” Lee said. “Tarvaris ran 4.75 and that was plenty good enough to escape.”
One pass as a Razorback stands out to Lee.
“It was against Weber State,” Lee said, referencing the Razorbacks' 42-19 victory in 2001. “Tarvaris went in and we were on the left hash, the far sideline from our bench. We ran four verticals. The one going down our sideline was just a hair open.
“Tarvaris let it fly and it was 40 yards down the field, but all the way across. The ball was about 10 yards high and it went over the safety in front of the corner and it hit our guy in the chest. It was incredible. I never saw anything like it.”
Clark recalls the throw, but said he saw similar lasers every day in practice.
“What I remember most is that no one wanted to play catch with him in warmups,” Clark said. “He would burn your hands with the spin on the ball.
“You remember the nerf whistle balls? Well, Tarvaris could make a regular football whistle. It was the spin of the laces. I never heard anyone else do that. He had the strongest arm I ever saw in person.
“The stories are told that he was not allowed to pitch in Little League baseball because he threw it too hard.”
There were thoughts that Jackson’s arm talent might be the difference in the quarterback battles. But it came down to Jones running the option, especially after Lee inserted a zone read out of the shotgun.
Loggains recalls the third scrimmage of the spring when Jones won the job over Jackson.
"Tarvaris actually ran with the ones the first two scrimmages, but then Matt had one day with the threes when he just kept taking them down the field," Loggains said. "I think there were disputes between Coach Nutt and Coach Lee about who should be No. 1 until then.
"But Tarvaris just was at Arkansas when a generational guy came through, Matt Jones. But, to a man, every player knew Tarvaris would be an NFL guy."
Lee recalls the key play in the offense that gave Jones the edge.
“I had been running the mid-line option with Kenny Hatfield at Rice,” Lee said. “I had seen Northwestern score 58 on Michigan running a zone read out of the shotgun. I’d shown Kenny that play just before I got to Arkansas. I met with the Northwestern offensive coordinator at the coaching clinic and he went through film. I really liked it.
“And when I saw Matt Jones, I thought we could do that with him. We put it in and it was something different against SEC teams. It really helped us and Matt could run it and also pass.”
Clark called it a “difference maker, too.” He recalls the first time he ran it in practice.
“We got in that shotgun and I was the first time to get that call,” he said. “I took it to the house and I don’t think I ever got to run it again.”
Jones was just so much faster and ended up as the quarterback.
“I look back at those days and it was a lot of fun, so much talent in that room, so many good guys,” Clark said. “All of them were good people. Tarvaris was kind of quiet, but liked by all.”
Lee said the same thing.
“I knew Tarvaris had a chance to be an NFL quarterback,” Lee said. “He had a lot of the right things, such a good person. I still recall him coming in to see me before he transferred to Alabama State. He said, ‘Coach, no hard feelings and I love it here, but I just don’t see that I’m going to get on the field with what you’ve got in (Jones). I know he’s going to play.’ And, he was right.”
Obviously, there were no hard feelings. Lee, who was Buffalo's quarterbacks coach, asked the Bills to trade for Jackson to be a backup quarterback in 2012.
“So I had him two years at Arkansas and one year at Buffalo,” he said. “I was not surprised when Minnesota drafted him in the second round.”
Lee enjoyed talking about his former Arkansas quarterbacks and his old bosses, Hatfield and Nutt.
“To be honest, my favorite places in all my coaching stops was Arkansas,” he said. “It was like you were at the pro team in the state. Everyone was so loyal and I loved working for Kenny and Houston.
“We won games, too. Kenny went to two Cotton Bowls and won a lot of games. Houston won, too. I think people forget how many games both of them won. Heck, I liked it so much there I kept coming back.
“What I remember was that both of them could evaluate players, and that was quarterback and everything else. They knew how to get the top player and then evaluate those you needed to develop, then they’d develop them, get them ready. They had the eye for doing that and it’s a rare ability.”
Lee developed Grovey into a great run-pass operator. He was just a runner when he arrived from Duncan, Okla. Lee gave him two drills to change that. One of them was throwing from his knees, so a stronger shoulder could be developed.
“We did that over and over,” Lee said. “But the drill that really helped him was to tape his left arm to his side, so his left shoulder couldn’t fly open.
“Dave Patton our video guy got me some film on his throwing motion so we could slow it down and see that shoulder fly open. It robbed him of all his throwing strength. Quinn’s arm would get tired after 10 minutes. We had to get that fixed. We got his arm stronger and created some torque in his motion with a shorter stride.
“That’s the way you coach quarterbacks, fix their fundamentals. I see so many of these (NFL) coaches who just know the Xs and Os. You have to fix fundamentals. I thought that was what made Kenny and Houston so good is that they focused on fundamentals and development.”
There were no mechanics to fix with Jackson. He had the magical arm. That’s what everyone in his old Razorback family remembered.
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