State of the Hogs: Derby Question

Who is the front runner in the Derby? Well, there is a front runner for the backup quarterback job for the Razorbacks, transfer A. J. Derby.

Does anyone remember what was going on with the Arkansas football team at this time last year? I do and about half the story was how open John L. Smith was going to be with the media, fans and players as he handled a 10-month contract as head football coach.

The other half was centered on Tyler Wilson's ability to lead the team as the returning All-SEC quarterback along with playmakers Cobi Hamilton, Knile Davis Chris Gragg and Dennis Johnson.

As it turned out, Smith should have done a few less interviews and kept some of that pressure off of Wilson. But it probably wouldn't have turned out any better than the 4-8 dumpster fire that was Arkansas football in 2012.

Smith is at Division II Fort Lewis State in Durango, Colo. Wilson is headed to the Oakland Raiders.

The most interesting question these days is become clear in the last 48 hours. With Brandon Mitchell gone, the thought isn't so much about who will lead the team at quarterback. That's going to be sophomore Bandon Allen, the top man on Bret Bielema's post-spring depth chart.

No, the new question is about the backup spot. It's not who won the Derby? More precisely, folks want to know who is A. J. Derby and how did he get to Arkansas? Derby is the likely backup with incoming freshman Austin Allen and Damon "Duwop" Mitchell next.

Interestingly, Derby was interested in Arkansas this time last year. He came to the Red-White spring game hoping the Hogs would recruit him at Coffeyville, Kan., Community College. The 6-5, 232-pounder turned down a Houston scholarship to walk-on at Arkansas and play for his dad's old teammate at Iowa, Bielema.

Derby signed with Iowa after being courted by Florida, LSU, Michigan and Wisconsin out of Iowa City, Iowa High School. The Hawkeyes didn't leave him at quarterback for long and he left after a try at linebacker. He threw for 1,935 yards at Coffeyville where he teamed with UA signee Martrell Spaight, a linebacker from North Little Rock.

Bielema and John Derby are old friends and that probably played a role in the decision to try to earn a scholarship at Arkansas.

"I go back a long ways with his father," Bielema said in the spring. "There's actually a picture of his father and me at the Holiday Bowl. He was a heavily recruited player at quarterback.

"It didn't work out for him there and he ended up in junior college. He wants to play quarterback and that's where we've got him. He's a very talented athlete."

Derby's thoughts weren't just on playing quarterback in the SEC when he picked the Hogs.

"I came for the spring game at Arkansas and saw that there would be a chance for me to win the job when Tyler Wilson graduated," he said last winter. "The opportunity to do that and play in the SEC is just a great situation for me and I'm going to do my best to take advantage of that.

"I think Arkansas has a great program and this gives me the best chance to hopefully make it to the NFL one day."

Obviously, Derby has the look of a rugged quarterback. His arm is good, but not outstanding. It was clear that he was in a learning mode early in the spring as he stepped into a Jim Chaney's system. But he progressed and made some plays in the last three scrimmages. He was clearly the third best behind Allen and Mitchell and coaches said he made strides throughout the spring.

Coffeyville coach Aaron Flores likes the fit for Derby at Arkansas under Bielema. Interestingly, he thought he fit under Bobby Petrino, too.

"A. J. is a quality person who comes to work every day and wants to learn," Flores said. "He's positive, a good worker and a good teammate.

"He didn't come in here thinking, ‘OK, I've played at the Division I level, so I know everything.' He came in wanting to learn and got better and better every single day. He has size, knowledge of defenses and coverages and he understands where to go with the ball.

"I don't know what Arkansas has at quarterback, but I know he will come in and compete and do what's asked of him on and off the field. He'll be in the film room and work to get better every day.

"A. J. had gone to the spring game last year and felt confident he could come in with that style of offense they run and compete. I think he's a good fit.

"Coach Bielema doesn't ask the quarterback to do everything. They rely on a run-pass balance and I think that's what fits A.J.'s strengths. He can go under center or step back and take shotgun snaps and spread out the offense. He's mobile, too. I don't know that he's anything like Russell Wilson, but he's faster than what he looks.

"He can keep a play alive with his feet. And, he's big, which makes him tough to bring down."

Yes, things have changed at Arkansas. We've learned a lot about Bret Bielema. Now, we are likely to learn a lot more about A. J. Derby. After all, if something happens to Brandon Allen, we may be talking about a different kind of Derby.

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