Senior Writer

Arkansas QB Mallett facing season of questions


This is the year of the quarterback. That's part of the conflict for guys like Ryan Mallett.

Arkansas' redshirt junior barely has a year as a starting quarterback. One, in fact. A very good one. For now it defines him in and beyond Fayetteville.

'A lot of people will say I've got a million things to improve on,' Ryan Mallett says. (US Presswire)  
'A lot of people will say I've got a million things to improve on,' Ryan Mallett says. (US Presswire)  
Considering the sample size, though, who the hell knows about him, really? The SEC awaits another assault, but the league's leading passer in 2009 hasn't been able to run since breaking his left foot in February. The NFL awaits his talents. But the man some project as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2011 had to take up swimming just to keep his legs fresh during rehab.

"I feel like I could try out for the Olympics right now," he said. "I'm used to just kicking it around in the pool."

Mallett himself waits patiently to see what's ahead. None of this dual-threat crap for him. He is what the NFL wants each and every year, a classic, tall, drop-back quarterback with a big arm.

"That's really how the quarterback position is supposed to be played," he said.

Arkansas staged a teleconference last week with its star. Half the media's questions to Mallett were about the NFL. The other half were about that foot. Pro scouts want to get another look at that 6-foot-7 frame and rocket arm. So do Arkansas fans for different reasons.

"A lot of people ... probably since '64," Mallett said, "have considered us underdogs."

The quarterback apparently knows his history and the expectations heaped upon him. The Hogs have had their moments over the past five decades, mostly in the old Southwest Conference. Mallett referred to a "national championship" awarded in 1964 by the likes of the Football Writers Association of America and the Helms Athletic Foundation, among others.

The conflict for Mallett, and those like him in recent years, is dealing with those expectations. Is he the next great NFL quarterback? Is he the next great SEC quarterback?

What if he is neither?

Last season was nice (30 touchdowns, seven interceptions) but let's not forget Mallett spent spring practice in a boot and has had a couple of screws inserted into the foot. It's late July and Mallett still can't run.

Before he shoots to the top of NFL Draft boards, doesn't he actually have to, well, play? That's the problem with labels. Sometimes they are accompanied by more promise than proof. Southern California's Mark Sanchez had started 16 career games -- same as Mallett at the moment -- when he left early for the NFL. USC coach Pete Carroll pitched a mini-fit, intimating that his quarterback wasn't ready. But in his rookie season Sanchez played in the AFC Championship Game for the Jets.

We last saw Sam Bradford play in October. His final season at Oklahoma was limited to 69 passes and marked by two shoulder surgeries. All that didn't keep the Rams from making him the first overall pick.

This season's college arms race could be the best in years. Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor guided the Buckeyes to the Big Ten's first Rose Bowl win in a decade last season. Boise State's Kellen Moore will start the season as a preseason All-American on a lot of lists. NFL writer Pete Prisco has Washington's Jake Locker rated the No. 1 2011 prospect. Mallett is No. 4 overall and the No. 2-rated quarterback. Stanford's Andrew Luck is in the top 10. Florida State's Christian Ponder is in the top 20.

The year of the quarterback, though, starts with uncertainty. Ponder and Mallett are returning from injuries. Locker broke his thumb in 2008 and still has only one full season in which he has thrown more touchdowns than interceptions.

Is it just me or is the NFL willing to take bigger and bigger draft risks at the position? Tim Tebow won two national championships and a Heisman, but there are those saying Broncos coach Josh McDaniels is staking his career on taking the Florida star in the first round.

None of this should concern Mallet but it must at some level.

"Everybody's worried," he admitted. "We kind of laugh because everybody thinks we're not going to be ready, but we're going to be ready."

So where is Mallett's head these days with two football giants -- Arkansas and the NFL -- pulling at him?

"I promised my Mom I would graduate," he said. "Most of my family is educators or coaches. I felt like I owed it to the state. They let me come in and transfer to Arkansas. I didn't feel like it would be fair to up and leave after one year."

At first, the words seem hollow. Players routinely promise their parents they'll get their degrees then squander their time or money, or both. How many others owed it to their family and future and never came through? They work the system for their own good.

Mallett committed to another year before he broke the foot. Being a native son from Texarkana, Ark., he felt somewhat of an obligation. He forsook Arkansas out of high school to go to Michigan. When a coaching change supplanted Lloyd Carr's pro set with Rich Rodriguez's spread, he began looking south.

Those perpetual underHogs, Mallett among them, think they have something special in 2010. Arkansas is loaded on offense and can't wait for a Sept. 25 showdown at home against Alabama. The quarterback knows there are concerns at the next level about his accuracy. Heck, there are concerns in Fayetteville about his accuracy. His height is a great advantage but he knows there are also questions about his mobility.

"A lot of people will say I've got a million things to improve on," he said.

What we're left with is a promise to mom.

Mallett is going to graduate. That is almost assured. He has 15 hours left toward a sociology degree -- 12 hours this fall and three in the second semester.

Even if he does go to the NFL after this season, those final three hours could be picked up online. If he doesn't go pro, he'll have that degree and mostly likely continue taking graduate courses.

"It's kind of how we've got it planned," Mallett said.

Arkansas' associate director of academic support Waqa Damuni smiles because not everyone plans it that way. When Mallett transferred from Michigan after the 2007 season, "We kind of had a feeling he was going to take off [early to the NFL]," Damuni said. "Everybody knew that."

The challenge was getting Mallett close enough to the hole to make his potential final semester a tap-in. A large portion of his credits at Michigan didn't transfer. Mallett used summer school to catch up, not unlike a lot of players. Meanwhile, Damuni was getting input the whole time from Debbie and Jim Mallett back in Texarkana.

"He had an opportunity to leave after his [redshirt] sophomore year," Damuni said. "His parents contacted me and said, 'We want him to get his degree. They kept stressing to us, 'We want him to get his degree.' So he's on track."

The headlines have been dominated lately by players getting cozy with shady agents. The NCAA basically said Reggie Bush was competing as a professional for much of his USC career. No question Mallett's talents could qualify him for some of that ill-gotten cash.

But there is hope that the sport hasn't transformed completely into a minor league for the NFL. Let's hope we never get to the point that graduation is a surprise. The NCAA has attempted to embarrass schools by making them adhere to the Academic Progress Rate, a number that basically equates to a 60 percent graduation rate.

Let's just say that, academically, Arkansas could use Mallett's feel-good story. The school's APR number in men's basketball was last in the SEC. Football finished 11th among the league's 12 teams in the latest four-year rolling average.

There are no excuses, really, if you still believe we're playing college -- not minor-league pro -- football. Campus Taj Mahals have been built to make sure enough players hit that APR number. The signs say "academic support center." Reality says it's still possible to work the system for your own good.

Ask Ryan Mallett, who already knows he will walk in the spring -- across a stage to get his diploma -- before he knows he can run in the fall.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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