FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas quarterback quandary continued Wednesday, with senior Tyler Wilson returning to practice for the first time since the head injury that knocked him out of the 34-31 overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
The Razorbacks (1-1) are holding out hope Wilson can return to face top-ranked Alabama (2-0), but he hasn’t been cleared to play yet. So Arkansas is preparing backups Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell. Either way, it has left a cloudy picture – at least publicly – as the Razorbacks inch closer to Saturday’s game.
There is no such uncertainty at quarterback at Alabama this week. Second-year starter AJ McCarron is healthy and has been impressive through two games.
"He does everything well to be honest with you," Arkansas coach John L. Smith said.
So Arkansas, which was ripped apart by ULM quarterback Kolton Browning last week, will face another challenge at quarterback in Alabama’s McCarron. The junior, who appeared more like a caretaker for the Crimson Tide in throwing for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns with five interceptions last season, has played well.
McCarron has completed 25 of 40 passes (62.5 percent) for 418 yards and 6 touchdowns without an interception. It included a career-high tying four touchdown passes in the win against Western Kentucky last week, which helped him become the first quarterback in school history with multiple four touchdown performances.
McCarron wasn’t exactly smiling about his performance, though. The quarterback is admittedly hard on himself and expected more against Western Kentucky.
"Any time you throw a lot of touchdowns you’re going to be happy," McCarron said, according to Al.com. "But we left a lot of points out there also. …
"I’m just hard on myself. I just want to be perfect, really. I want this offense to be perfect. I guess I’m just being hard on us."
Alabama’s offense remains predicated on a power run, but it’s clear McCarron has helped them bolster the passing attack in his second season under center. The Crimson Tide, which has been even more successful with play-action passes than usual with McCarron and first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, is averaging 167.5 rushing yards and 212 passing yards a game.
CBS analyst Gary Danielson, a former quarterback who will be part of the network’s broadcast team this Saturday, said it’s a product of McCarron’s maturation. It started to become clear in the national championship game last season, when McCarron completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards in Alabama’s win against LSU.
"AJ always had a ton of talent," Danielson said. "You couldn’t help but notice on the practice field even when he wasn’t a player that he had a boatload of talent. Way more talent than the last two guys that played there - John Parker (Wilson) and (Greg) McElroy. Just raw physical talent. … But he had the luxury of being brought along slowly last year because Alabama was able to play defense and run the ball.
"The quarterback LSU faced in the championship game was a much different quarterback than everybody faced in the first six games."
McCarron carried a streak of 95 passes without an interception into the 2012 season and has stretched it to 135. He will get a chance to extend it even more against an Arkansas secondary that has been shredded by opponents through two weeks.
Arkansas ranks 108th in the nation in pass defense (319.5 yards a game) and most of the damage came against ULM. Browning threw for 412 yards in the win, including a game-tying 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth down late in regulation.
So Arkansas realizes McCarron is more than capable of a big performance, too.
"I call him the heart of their offense," Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. "He makes it go. I think he knows it in and out, so he can get them in and out of situations. When he sees pressure he can get them in good situations.
"He’s their guy and we’ve got to affect him."
The good news for Arkansas: Opponents have managed to do it so far this year.
Alabama has allowed six sacks against Western Kentucky and eight through two games. Defense end Chris Smith said it’s an indication there should be opportunities to get McCarron on the ground Saturday. Arkansas wants to follow through after missing numerous attempts to stop Browning last week.
"He’s a guy who made a tremendous step last year," Smith said of McCarron. "He’s got a national championship under his belt. He’s a good quarterback and a good team leader. He leads that offense. So we’re going to try to get after him a little bit."
McCarron, meanwhile, will try to notch another win as Alabama’s starter.
The self-described perfectionist wants a better performance, too.
"Last week was a good win, but definitely not satisfying for us on offense as a whole," McCarron said. "Kind of a letdown week to our standards. So we’re definitely going to have to step it up in our first SEC game."