This is the eighth and final story in a position-by-position series previewing the 2012 Razorbacks. Arkansas opens the season against Jacksonville State on Saturday.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson isn’t afraid to admit it.
He was a little hesitant when Paul Petrino returned to Arkansas last winter.
He remembered Petrino as Arkansas’ fiery receivers coach, who was known for yelling at receivers as he chased them down the field in practices. So when former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino announced his brother was coming back to his staff as the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach to replace Garrick McGee after a two-year absence last December, Wilson wasn’t sure how it would work.
But earlier this summer, when Wilson was asked about the evolution of his relationship with the man now in charge of Arkansas’ offense after Bobby Petrino wrecked his run with the Razorbacks, the fifth-year senior summed up the growth.
“My relationship with Paul Petrino?” Wilson said, repeating a question posed by a reporter during SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. “Incredible.”
John L. Smith has stepped into the spotlight as the Razorbacks head coach after Arkansas’ tumultuous offseason, taking charge of the program as it prepares for the 2012 season. But what about the offense, which became the Southeastern Conference’s best under its previous head coach? Paul Petrino and Wilson have become the lead characters in charge of making sure it still hums this season.
All eyes will be on the duo as it leads an offense loaded with talent at the skill positions. Wilson is, after all, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate after turning in the best season for a quarterback in Arkansas’ school history in 2011. Petrino, meanwhile, has dug into his job with play-calling and game-planning duties on his shoulders, working in conjunction with the offensive staff.
It’s clear both have extreme confidence in each other as the season begins thanks in large part to the bond they’ve formed since Petrino’s return last December.
“They’ve really connected very well,” Arkansas running backs coach Tim Horton said. “They really work well together.”
Petrino was the first person to visit Wilson at Greenwood High after Arkansas made its coaching chance in Dec. 2007. He was the offensive coordinator who coached receivers at the time, helping to convince Wilson to become a Razorback as the new staff began searching for offensive talent to begin building a championship program.
Wilson agreed, of course, but said last week his relationship with Petrino those first few years on campus weren’t anything special. A lot of it had to do with the fact Arkansas’ quarterbacks spent more time with Bobby Petrino and quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee, leaving most of the interaction with Paul on the practice field.
So Wilson said there “wasn’t much” to their work together before Petrino left for the offensive coordinator position at Ilinois in Dec. 2010. That changed in December, when Petrino came back and began working in his new role for the Cotton Bowl.
“Complete difference in the way I communicate with an offensive coordinator,” Wilson said earlier this summer. “He’s been able to take me in. Any time I’ve wanted to talk to him, send him a text, go in watch film, communicate with him, it’s available. You want to have a relationship like that with a coordinator.”
Wilson said one big reason he wanted to return to Arkansas was to become “an expert” at his position in college football. There’s no doubt he believes Petrino can help him make that happen as the Razorbacks drive for a championship in 2012.
They’ve spent countless hours in the film room, studying great quarterbacks, breaking down opponents and reviewing practice film. They’ve worked together on the practice field, sharpening up techniques and perfecting game-day situations.
And while Petrino hasn’t been shy about coaching when the quarterback makes a mistake, Wilson said his position coach doesn’t simply yell for the sake of yelling.
“It’s for a reason,” Wilson said. “It’s not about something that doesn’t matter. It’s about something that I really need to be getting on about. And I like to be coached that way. It’s also a mutual understanding that this is what we want to get done. This is how we want to operate. And these are the standards.
“I think he pushes me and we get to that standard each and every day.”
Horton said it’s clear there is a mutual respect between the two, who want nothing more than to lead the Hogs to a big year.
“They’re very comfortable with each other,” Horton said. “Tyler really has connected with Paul, Paul’s connected with Tyler. Just like any quarterback and quarterback coach, that’s what you want to see. I know they’re very close, and Tyler has a lot of confidence in Paul, and I think Paul obviously has a lot of confidence in Tyler.
“I really think that was probably a little bit of a factor in Tyler coming back.”
The relationship really took hold in the spring, when Arkansas stood at a crossroads because of Bobby Petrino’s mistakes.
Wilson stepped forward and pronounced himself as the leader of the program while it was surrounded by chaos. Paul Petrino pressed on behind the scenes even though there was family turmoil. The offense didn’t slow down with both leading the way.
“His confidence is just really high right now,” Petrino said about Wilson after spring practice ended last April. “I think that’s our job is to make sure we keep it there. Do everything in our power to make sure everybody around him plays real well and he keeps playing like he does because if he has that little swagger about him, that confidence he’s playing with right now, he’s going to be a hard quarterback to stop.”
Wilson said the two have continued to build on the spring since, working together to shape Arkansas’ offense for 2012. While Petrino will call plays, Wilson said the coach has allowed him to offer input on what will take place on the field this season.
Petrino isn’t blind to the fact that having a fifth-year senior who knows the system like the back of his hand is an uncommon luxury. He has always lived by the philosophy of “Feed the Studs” on offense, after all. So if the man in charge of feeding them the ball has an idea of how to make it easier, it only makes sense to listen.
“He’s going to bounce things off of me as a second-year starter,” Wilson said. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you like to run?’ So I think the lead call will be much more in my favor this year. Stuff I like to run. Stuff I’m comfortable running.
“And I think that’s where success starts.”
Wilson, in turn, plans to produce after throwing for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns with 6 interceptions last season. He set school records along the way (like throwing for 510 yards in a game against Texas A&M) and became the first Arkansas quarterback to earn All-Southeastern Conference first-team honors.
Smith said it’s no secret how valuable Wilson’s ability to accomplish even more could be the difference for Arkansas’ hopes in 2012.
So he believes the quarterback’s relationship with Petrino has been a big factor in Wilson becoming “a pretty little flower” that is “starting to blossom.”
“It’s like he all of a sudden just keeps exuding confidence, like, I know the system. I know where I have to go,” Smith said. “His confidence level is through the roof.
“Now, as we all are, he’s going to make a mistake from time to time, but it’s not like it takes several reps. It will be a rep, and coach will say something, and the light is on. It doesn’t take a while, two or three times, for the light to go on.”
Wilson agreed with Smith, crediting the strong relationship with the new position coach and offensive coordinator for facilitating his growth the past few months.
It isn’t the bond Wilson anticipated when Petrino first returned to Arkansas last December. But the “completely different” Petrino has been a perfect fit for Wilson.
“He has an understanding of how I work and how I think and how he can coach me,” Wilson said in July. “And I think I respond better than maybe in the past.”
A Closer Look At … QUARTERBACKS
Best of the Bunch: Tyler Wilson — The fifth-year senior is back after his record-breaking 2011 season. The Razorbacks have supreme confidence in the All-SEC quarterback, who earned respect on the field for his play as a junior and has stepped forward as a rock-solid leader since the tumultuous offseason. It should lead to another impressive season as Wilson wraps up his Arkansas career.
Watch Out For: Brandon Allen — Arkansas has received a glimpse of its future with Allen leading the second-team offense during preseason camp. The Razorbacks like what they see, too. His growth made Brandon Mitchell’s move to wide receiver easy this preseason, giving Allen even more reps in practice. Allen should get a chance to make his Arkansas debut whenever reserves hit the field against Jacksonville State.
Biggest Strength: The Razorbacks are blessed to have a fifth-year quarterback, who may have likely been a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, under center. Wilson knows the offense, won’t be shy under pressure, and understands what it takes to win games in the SEC. The combination of strengths should give Arkansas an important advantage as it competes for an SEC championship this season.
Biggest Question: Worst-case scenario: Wilson is injured. Which quarterback will step on the field? Brandon Mitchell? Or Brandon Allen? Allen has received more work in practice, but it’s not clear if he’s ready to go against a team like Alabama if needed. Mitchell has some experience and continues to attend QB meetings, but spends roughly 90 percent of his practice time at receiver. So it’s an interesting dilemma. One Arkansas, of course, hopes it doesn’t have to answer this season.
Projected Starter: Tyler Wilson, Sr.
Other Contributors: Brandon Allen, RS-Fr.; Brandon Mitchell, Jr.
That Figures: 1 — Number of Arkansas quarterbacks who were named first-team, All-SEC performers. Wilson finally pushed through a barrier others like Clint Stoerner and Ryan Mallett couldn’t last season, when he turned his first season as a starter into an All-SEC year. He’s the favorite to earn the honor again this season, competing with the likes of Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray.
Quotable: “If you have a guy at that spot that is special, you have a chance to win. And everybody else around him knows that. We have to keep that guy healthy. Because we know when he’s out there, we have a chance to win.” — Arkansas coach John L. Smith on quarterback Tyler Wilson
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau