Paul Petrino has seen the progress Tyler Wilson has made in the last five months since the Cotton Bowl. The scary part for SEC opponents is that the fifth-year senior quarterback is going to keep getting better.
Petrino returned to Arkansas as offensive coordinator before the bowl game, this time as quarterbacks coach. He couldn't be more pleased with what he sees from Wilson, on and off the field.
The UA assistant coach said the Greenwood product, the returning first team All-SEC quarterback, continues to get better in how he tackles video study and incorporates that into his game. He saw that against Kansas State in the way the Hogs operated their run-game checks with Wilson under center. That continued in the spring, too.
"He improved a lot," Petrino said after evaluating Wilson's spring performance. "His ability to get us in the right runs was probably the biggest thing mentally he improved on, seeing the blitzes and changing protections. Probably where he improved the most was just his knowledge of the defense."
What's next to work on this summer?
"He can get his football intelligence better," Petrino said. "We made a blitz book of the opponents we're playing this upcoming season. He can study that and start to recognize, and see things better. He needs to understand football better and that's something you can always work on."
One of the best things Wilson does was not evident in the spring. The Hogs didn't touch the quarterbacks, per the usual. But there are no questions about Wilson's toughness. He took a beating last season, never missing a snap because of injury at least in SEC games or in the bowl game. He'll take a hit and still deliver the ball on time.
That was obvious with the pounding he took both in the Alabama and Texas A&M games. The Aggies blitzed play after play and Wilson made them pay with a 500-yard passing day. How does he stand in there with a great release knowing that a hit is about to be delivered to his chin.
"I think it's just my nature," he said. "I think it just goes back to playing in the yard. You didn't wear pads in all of those games. I played a lot of those. And you know you are going to get hit. I don't know that they were tackle games, but you got hit on most plays anyway. There's no one out there to keep you from getting hit.
"I know that was at an early age. And then you learn quickly that the point of it is to complete the pass, not keep from getting hit. That's more important than trying not to have someone hit you. Complete that pass.
"It's a natural instinct for me. Some might go, ‘Gosh, you are the toughest guy for doing it.' But for me, it's just natural."
Are there some chuckles or winces when the tape rolls the next day?
"Yes, I do when I watch it," he said. "Gosh, I know how I stood in there for that. Or why."
Wilson is not a talker. So there is nothing that he'll say to the defender that perhaps is a step late in his hit on a cheap shot. He said there's no need in saying a word. The completion does the talking.
"I think completing the pass wears on them," Wilson said. "They are a step away from getting me and they do hit me, but they turn around and it's a completion. Over and over and over again, we are completing the pass. When they see you completing balls and standing in there and it doesn't seem to faze you, that's frustrating to a defensive coordinator and it's frustrating to a defensive player."
Wilson might not say anything, but he will break out in a smile when he takes a hit and completes a big pass against the blitz.
"I take a lot of pride in that," he said. "It's sort of like my way to be John Wayne (tough). I'm going to keep coming. I don't know where it all comes from. I guess I was born with it."
Some of that toughness comes from working four years under Bobby Petrino. Petrino is involved in much of the quarterback development from time in the offensive meeting room and in the way he pushes quarterbacks on the practice field. Some of it is not pretty. It can be a brutal grind. Perhaps many would crack under the pressure and sometimes verbal abuse.
Interestingly, Wilson and the Hogs are going to get a different approach this season. Paul Petrino can be a tough, gritty coach, too. But there's also the upbeat encouragement that is going to come from a new head coach, John L. Smith.
The 63-year-old Smith is quick with a pat on the back and sometimes a bear hug. Wilson thinks it might be the right time for the Hogs to feel that sort of coaching style. Ultimately, Wilson said he'd probably be the same under either approach.
"There are definitely two ways to coach the game, multiple ways to coach," Wilson said. "A lot of players do better for some coaches than others and some blossom under another. Me, I've worked hard. I think with that hard work and a little talent, I can thrive in both settings."
Wilson played for Rick Jones at Greenwood High School. What were the motivational traits of Jones?
"He was very, very tough on me, but I had a great relationship," Wilson said. "We had an off-the-field relationship. We were close and he was someone I could go talk to. He also was funny and I felt comfortable going to him.
"He was probably closer to Coach Smith than Coach Petrino, maybe in some middle ground.
"There are a number of ways to coach it. I'd say Coach Smith is on the far left and Coach Petrino on the far right. Coach Jones would fall right in the middle."
The odds for this team prospering next season and the expectations have fallen since Petrino's firing. How does that make Wilson feel?
"That kind of fires me up a little bit," Wilson said. "I don't know why that would happen. But I guess it's because there is the feeling that you lost the guy in a way got us there. From the outside looking in, obviously, he was the master mind behind the organization.
"He's the guy who knew the plays, put it in structure and then kept it in structure. From the outside looking in, you lost that. Obviously, some might think that because of that you might lose a couple of more games.
"Me, from the inside who has been a part of it, I'd say we have just as much of a chance that we did before. We have coaches that are inspired and want to do a good job. They have a reason to want to do well because they want to stay here at Arkansas.
"We've got a head coach that's excited to come back and take advantage of this opportunity. We've got a group of guys that are really wanting to prove a lot of people wrong. We are closer because of it."
The bond between teammates started to tighten the night they found out Petrino was fired. Wilson still talks about the meeting Jeff Long called with players to give the news.
"I've talked before about that night," Wilson said. "But it was a meeting with our team that began to really pull us together. A couple of guys talked, me included, and from there we've really grown tight. That brings a team closer."
It was 12 months ago that both Bobby Petrino and Garrick McGee (now at Alabama-Birmingham) had exit talks with Wilson after spring football drills. And they talked to the media, too.
Both the head coach and the offensive coordinator refused to name Wilson the starting quarterback after a spring battle that he had clearly won over Brandon Mitchell. They said the battle would continue through the summer as Wilson and Mitchell tried to prove which could become the clear leader of the team.
Fast forward to the late spring of 2012 and Wilson is the unquestioned leader of the team, the face of the program. Does he wonder why Petrino and McGee asked him to try to step into a tough-man type coaching role last summer when he was probably just going to lead as an example in his own personal style? Or did he change into that role that his coaches wanted in the way he led during an 11-2 season?
"I already lived through that," Wilson said. "There's a lot of me that says I'm the same guy I was a year ago, in terms of my personality, in terms of the way I led and the way I carried myself and went to practice every single day.
"Then there's a part of me that says I changed. I think coaching wise you might have a question about a guys leadership just because you haven't seen it on the field when it counts. Until you see it, you go, ‘Does he have the right qualities.' And you might try to push him into something. I understood that.
"Sometimes those qualities don't come out until your time is appointed to you. I think that's big in everything you do.
"That's the case in everything you do. Sometimes big-time coaches don't emerge until they are giving the opportunity and they are put in the driver's seat. There's a reason you don't hear their names until appointed head coach.
"There are a lot of different things that play into that. I'm excited that all of that stuff has transpired for a reason.
"Last year when we changed (quarterbacks) coach during the Cotton Bowl time, my maturity improved. I got a lot more reps during the bowl practices, got a win at the Cotton Bowl. That helps your confidence."
There have been other things that have changed Wilson. Faced with a decision on whether to return for his senior season or declare for the draft, Wilson said he had to mature even more.
"That decision making process after the game as we talked about the draft made me grow up as a person," he said. "I knew I had wanted to be here for my entire time all along. This is what my goals are and what I want to do as a person long term. You have to make a lot of grown-up decisions and do it in a short time frame. That helps you grow up and have a different purpose for playing. Then all of the stuff that transpired in the last month makes you grow up more.
"Right now, I feel more confident than I've ever felt and I think that helps you become a better leader. I think guys see that."
Did Wilson watch Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill go in the eighth overall pick in the draft?
"I did watch it," Wilson said. "I got to know him before when I was at the (Manning Passing Academy). When I made my decision back in January, I told myself, after this I'm going to put my nose down and not question it and make myself right.
"But when you watch the draft, it comes to you. Obviously, I could have been right there in the mix with those guys. And I knew that when I made my decision. I had a number of sources that told me that you could be right there in the middle of the first round.
"I think even during the process, Tannehill got a little bump (higher). He got to show some people what he could do and that helped his stock out a little bit."
There are good things that could come out of the coaching stage that give Wilson a little bump. Obviously, playing in the Petrino system is a plus with NFL coaches because Petrino operated a pro system. But it can also be a downgrade because some think quarterback numbers for an Arkansas quarterback in this system may inflate the numbers. This is a chance to show himself under a new playcaller, even if it's still a Petrino and in a similar system. The key is that Wilson has grown in his ability to make checks at the line and change calls.
"I think some did look at having Coach Petrino calling plays as an advantage for a quarterback and might say it's a system thing (and not a player's ability)," Wilson said. "But I guess I still have a Petrino calling plays for me. That's a great thing, too, but he does call a different game, a really good game that I'm comfortable with. A lot of the things he calls are because I'm good at.
"I always try to spin things in the positive and there's no reason this situation can't help me. When you talk to general managers later down the road, I hope this can spin in the positive for me."
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