April 25, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: Arkansas junior Ryan Mallett.
• Typecasting. Huge, slow, can throw the ball through a wall. That's the book on Mallett since he was tabbed as one of the top incoming players at any position in 2007, when he was bound for the Valhalla of statuesque, big-armed quarterbacks, Michigan, as the heir apparent to four-year Wolverine starter Chad Henne. When he comes out for the draft --which will be next year, in all likelihood, barring a disaster this fall -- Mallett's arm will draw immediate comparisons to recent SEC stars Matt Stafford and JaMarcus Russell, and he may follow them as the No. 1 overall pick if his junior season unfolds as planned.
He's in the right system at Arkansas to put up first-round numbers. A bit of a square peg in Ann Arbor even before fleeing new coach Rich Rodriguez and his preference for athletic, spread QBs after the '07 season, Mallett found a home right up the road from his old high school stomping grounds, where Bobby Petrino was installing the pro-style, downfield passing system that had lifted Louisville into the top 10 nationally in total and scoring offense three years in a row from 2004-06, easily the best three-year run in Cardinal history. Mallett isn't as accurate as Petrino's UL stars, Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm, but set single-season and single-game Razorback records in '09 for yards and touchdowns, including the first 400-yard passing games in school history against Georgia and Troy (also the first five-touchdown passing games in school history), and has a limitless future courtesy of the golden cannon -- if he can stay on the field after a spring foot injury, and if he can keep it more consistently under control.
• At his best ... The Razorbacks led the SEC in passing in scoring, in part thanks to stat-padding romps over the likes of Missouri State, Eastern Michigan and Troy, but the SEC felt more than its share of Mallett's bombs-away approach: Arkansas hung 41 points on Georgia, 47 on Texas A&M, 44 on Auburn, 33 on South Carolina, 42 on Mississippi State and 30 on LSU in the regular-season finale, more than anyone else managed against the Tigers all season. He was especially lethal on the long ball, probably more than any other quarterback in the country, connecting on at least one 50-yard strike in eight different games; exactly half of his 30 touchdown passes covered at least 25 yards, to eight different receivers.
All but one of that number is back in '09, most notably the top five receivers for the year -- Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, D.J. Williams and Cobi Hamilton combined for 169 catches and 25 touchdowns -- an obvious nightmare even for teams that figure to run up their own dazzling numbers on the Razorbacks' always-forgiving defense. In other words, Mallett (along with Florida State's Christian Ponder) is the clear successor to Jimmy Clausen's crown as King of the Shootout.
• At his worst ... To begin with, recurring foot injuries can be a persistent nuisance for big quarterbacks (ask another hyped, big-armed slinger, Ben Olson, whose last two years at UCLA -- and possibly his NFL ambitions -- were destroyed by a succession of broken feet), and Mallett's break made him a nonentity in the spring. Even with a pair of healthy wheels, he's not going to outrun many pass rushers. And on top of rumors of a bad attitude at Michigan (he once got into a visible argument with players on the sidelines), he raised the reliability/character flag last year when he was arrested for public intoxication.
The really glaring issue last year, though, was his inconsistency and inaccuracy. Given his overall success, it's startling how off-target Mallett could be, especially against the league's best defenses -- against Alabama, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss, defenses that finished 1-2-3-4 in the SEC in scoring and pass efficiency D, Mallett completed well below 50 percent of his passes in all four games (all of which were also played on the road), sinking as low as 34.3 percent at Alabama and 35.3 at Ole Miss. Not coincidentally, Arkansas lost all four. A lot of the time, it was literally hit or miss -- hit big or miss entirely. For a specific example: The upset bid at Florida took a major hit when Mallett missed a wide open fullback in the end zone on a pass that would have put Arkansas up 17-13 late in the third quarter; he put the next pass in the dirt in front of an open receiver, the Hogs settled for a field goal to tie instead, and the Gators were back in front moments later en route to a three-point win.
The accuracy issues aren't new. Mallett finished his true freshman season at Michigan with a wretched 43.3 completion percentage in eight significant appearances, including a horror show of a performance in his only road start, a 37-21 loss at Wisconsin, in which he hit 11 of 36 with two interceptions. (Characteristically, he also hit three touchdown passes in the same game, one of them for 97 yards, but the performance was still described as "deranged" by interested observers.) Against competent secondaries, under heavier-than-usual -pressure -- 'Bama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU all got to Mallett for at least three sacks -- he was still fairly deranged.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. Mallett was awarded as college football's National Performer of the Year by something called the College Football Performance Awards, whose goal is "to provide the most scientifically rigorous conferments ... selected exclusive based upon objective scientific ranking to the extent to which any individual players increase the overall effectiveness of their teams." In other words, the organization decided Mallett was the most valuable player in the country to his team last year, and shipped him The World's Largest Crystal Football Trophy to prove it. It's science. So eat your heart out, Mark Ingram.
• What to Expect in '10. To the extent that Arkansas is considered a threat to sneak up on Alabama in the SEC West, Mallett is obviously the catalyst, the unique athlete with the experience, production and supporting cast to deliver the school's first SEC championship. Even if Mallett vastly improves his completion percentage against decent defenses while continuing his penchant for the downfield assault, the Razorback D probably prohibits that level of optimism.
As for Mallett himself, more record-breaking numbers are going to be there in Petrino's offense, and he clearly enters the season as the top quarterback in the conference. But a legitimate SEC title run will probably require him to be the best in the country. That title is well within the reach of his physical ability. Given how thoroughly dominated he was by Alabama last year, though, and to a lesser extent in all of the Hogs' big road games, that the kind of Heisman-worthy turnaround that sort of run would require is still unlikely to come off in its entirety. Another 30-touchdown barrage for the highest-scoring offense in the league ought to get Arkansas to a New Year's Day bowl, and make Mallett one of the hottest commodities in New York a year from now.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Kevin Riley, California. ... Chris Relf, Mississippi State. ... T.J. Yates, North Carolina. ... Landry Jones, Oklahoma. ... Tom Savage, Rutgers. ... Andy Dalton, TCU. ... Garrett Gilbert, Texas. ... Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin.