State of the Hogs: Quarterbacks

When it comes to quarterbacks, it's easy to find faults no matter how good they play. That's the way it is with Ryan Mallett, too. Some won't realize what they had until he's gone.

I remember the talk in the 2003-04 seasons. Matt Jones was the man for Arkansas. He was erasing the records for the top running quarterback in SEC history.

There were Arkansas fans wishing they could have a quarterback who was more of a thrower. That's what they saw on ESPN highlights each Saturday night, passing exploits. They wanted something that looked like what they saw on Sunday.

Never mind that Jones was the most exciting thing in Fayetteville since Clyde Scott and Lance Alworth, most still found faults. He wasn't a true quarterback, not a real passer. He didn't stay in the pocket. He would throw across his body. He would float passes.

Some loved Jones, but many more picked out other liabilities. There were whispers about his work ethic, too. Some suggested the Hogs might be better off without him.

I scratched my head over that one. Better off? They won't know what they had until he's gone.

You get Matt Jones once. Enjoy him, I said. Most don't want to leave it at that.

Now they've got Ryan Mallett. He is the best pro-styled passer at Arkansas since Joe Ferguson. He's got wonderful ability, but he's not perfect. He has flaws. He's no runner.

And his team is not blessed with anything terrific in the backfield. There isn't a great back to take the load off of him and make things easy. The best two runners of last season, Michael Smith and Dennis Johnson, are gone. Smith is out of eligibility and Johnson out with injury.

I tend to want to tell fans to ease off the throttle when they complain about Mallett's six interceptions, two in the fourth quarter of the Alabama game. Learn to enjoy his fantastic abilities, not spend so much time pointing out his faults.

Mallett leads the SEC in passing yards per game at 349.6. No one is within 100 yards of him. He's completing 69.3 percent of his passes. He's got 13 TDs in five games.

I go back to what Garrick McGee, Mallett's QB coach, said after he recorded a 27 of 38 passing day against Texas A&M. He had 310 yards and three TDs. It was below expectations and mediocre by Mallett standards, McGee admitted. Then, he added the clincher, "But, we are fortunate to have him."

Mallett has done everything possible to be all things to all people so far in his UA career. He didn't have to come back for this season, but he listened to his mother and is close to a degree. He's answered all of our questions and been more available to the media than most quarterbacks around the country. Some of them are silly, too, like the Arkansas reporter who, after the A&M game, asked Mallett and others if they knew Alabama had lost. Mallett said he did not know, but that the Hogs should have beaten Alabama two weeks earlier.

Mallett is a fine player, better than most who have played his position at Arkansas. He's going to have a hard time making everyone happy, though.

Instead of focusing on what he can and has done, most will focus on what he hasn't and can't do. That's the nature of the position. It's the burden of playing quarterback for the state's top school.

Playing quarterback at Arkansas is an almost impossible spot. This is a good Arkansas team, but not a great one. There are faults scattered throughout. There is some talent and more experience than recent years, but it's not great. It's the way it is at Arkansas most of the time.

That means quarterbacks are going to have to make a lot of plays, carry a lot of the burden. That's the way Ryan Mallett wants it. You aren't going to hear one whimper from him the rest of his time here.

There is some good news for him. His defense is better. His kickers are improved. His team doesn't have to try to outscore the opposition every week.

Unless it's this week.

Auburn has a Matt Jones, a quarterback who can do it with his feet and some with his arm, too. Cam Newton is the SEC's top rusher with 672 yards, unusual for a 6-6, 250-pounder. Because safeties and linebackers have to play him first, he's gotten some easy plays in the passing game, too. He leads the SEC in pass efficiency with a 180.7 rating. Mallett is third at 170.3, pretty good, too.

So much comes down to Mallett versus Newton this week. All eyes will be on the two quarterbacks. The game will probably turn on a mistake by one of them.

Or, maybe it will come down to Arkansas finding a way to block defensive tackle Nick Fairley or linebacker Josh Bynes, or how Auburn accounts for Arkansas ace blitzers Jerico Nelson and Anthony Leon.

Naw, we'll be talking about quarterback play next week. Some things never change.

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