The 6-7 Arkansas quarterback -- perhaps with tears in his eyes -- stepped off the podium for the Sugar Bowl post-game interviews with football sports information director Zack Higbee waiting at the bottom of the steps.
“You are done,” Higbee whispered into his ear.
And Ryan Mallett was.
I’m positive Higbee meant there would be no more interviews that night for Mallett. I doubt it had anything to do with the fact that Mallett had played his last game as a Razorback. Higbee would send out a school release around 44 hours later that had the Mallett statement declaring for the NFL draft.
Mallett had dodged the question at the Sugar Bowl post-game session, noting only that he still had to visit with his parents. I knew better. I’ve known it since he announced he would come back for his junior year. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino gave us all we needed to know at his season wrap just a few days after the Liberty Bowl.
“He’s going to play one more year and then he’ll go to the NFL,” Petrino said “We won’t even discuss another year after that.”
Apparently, that’s how it was, too.
There was no point in it. Some media members tried to start discussion during the season, like after the Texas-El Paso game when Mallett decided to run through the “A” instead of go with the captains for the coin toss. He’d never run through the “A” since he had been voted captain for both of his seasons with the Hogs. Surely, that was a sign that he was gone after the year, but Mallett wouldn’t make that a distraction. He just said his decision would come when the games were done.
But I knew. Everyone knew. Garrick McGee, the steady hand as quarterback coach during Mallett’s three years with the Hogs, came close to spilling the beans late in the season when he said, “It’s been great coaching Ryan. I’d love to coach him one more year, but ... ” He declined to finish the sentence, but his meaning was clear to me.
It’s also clear that Mallett is ready to move to the NFL. Is he done with his development as a quarterback? No. But he’s ready for another challenge. It would serve him no purpose to come back for his senior season.
First, the Hogs will be in good hands with the quarterbacks on hand. Tyler Wilson, Brandon Mitchell, Jacoby Walker and incoming freshman Brandon Allen give the Hogs plenty of firepower to move forward. Hence, Mallett doesn’t leave a void. That may not have been part of his decision, but it probably makes it easier on his coaches to wish him well.
Second, and most importantly, it’s unlikely that Mallett could do anything to erase his shortcomings by staying at the college level another year. He lacks a bit of mobility, about the only thing the pros will mark on the negative side. He’s still going to be a gangly 6-7 flame-thrower 12 months from now. He isn’t going to find great agility or quickness by playing in the SEC one more season.
And make no mistake, Mallett does throw flames. He’s like nothing I’ve ever seen covering college sports in 35 seasons. Troy Aikman had a fantastic arm when I saw him as a young college player at Oklahoma. Joe Ferguson was unlike anything I’d ever seen when I enrolled as a freshman journalism student at Arkansas in 1972. But neither were really like Mallett as far as velocity and overall arm strength.
Mallett rewrote the Arkansas passing records in just two seasons. He passed quarterbacks who needed three or four years to get similar totals. This is the one that sticks out in my mind: 62 touchdown passes against just 19 interceptions.
Some might remember Mallett for the three interceptions he threw against Alabama, especially the two in the closing minutes that fueled a rally by the No. 1 Crimson Tide. Or, they might recall that he couldn’t finish the Auburn game (concussion) or against Ole Miss (shoulder bruise). Or they might bring up that final pass, an interception against Ohio State that ended the bid for the first Arkansas victory in a BCS game.
Those plays are facts in his body of work. If not for them, his legacy might be slightly different, perhaps as the second All-America quarterback in the modern era at Arkansas. Perhaps if those plays and games had been different, he’d gone to New York to pick up the Heisman Trophy.
Mallett entered the season with a chance at that top prize, but maybe it was out of reach anyway with the way Cameron Newton blew up at Auburn. Maybe a perfect performance by Mallett against Auburn would have just forced Newton to lift his game even higher and nothing would have changed.
So where does Mallett fit in the grand scheme at Arkansas as far as all of the great quarterbacks to wear a Razorback on their helmet? How does he compare to Billy Moore, Fred Marshall, Bill Montgomery, Joe Ferguson, Kevin Scanlon, Quinn Grovey, Clint Stoerner and Matt Jones? Do you put Mallett in that group?
I do. And I’ve seen them all. I don’t recall a lot about Moore other than what I was told by my father, Wilson Matthews, Frank Broyles, Jerry Jones, Harold Horton and others. Moore was as good a runner as he was a passer, and vice versa. But he was a better leader and an intense fighter. Jones told me, “Billy Moore didn’t let you lose. You didn’t want to go back to the huddle if you didn’t do your best. He might whip you right there.”
The Hogs liked Moore on the field, and off the field, where he was as mean and fiery, too.
I started with Moore because he has a special place in the UA list of quarterbacks. In the modern era, there’s been only one All-America quarterback in the history of Arkansas football, Moore. He earned that rarest of honors for the Razorbacks in 1962 when the Football Writers made him their first team quarterback.
Some will argue that Moore is the best Arkansas quarterback of all time for that very reason. The only other All-America quarterback in the UA books was Jack Robbins in 1936. I don’t put Robbins in the same category just on the basis of his stats and team record. Yes, the Hogs won the SWC title that season, but did not go bowling with a 7-3 final record. But more to the point, Robbins was in a quarterback rotation in the ‘36 season, when Dwight “Paddlefoot” Sloan played almost as much as he did. And actually, they played tailback in the single wing. The two of them combined to average 12 of 26 passing for 143 yards per game.
No, we’ll stick with Moore for the basis of this story. He helped lead the Hogs to parts of three SWC titles from 1960-62. The Hogs played in the Cotton, Sugar and Sugar after those seasons.
Some will say Marshall rates at the top of the UA quarterback list since he’s the only one with a national championship on his resume. His numbers aren’t that great, but that 11-0 season deserves a special place for Marshall.
Ironically, he almost didn’t play his senior season. Like Mallett and many of the others in this grouping of great UA quarterbacks, Marshall was a blue-chipper all the way. But what he had what some of these others didn’t have -- the best UA defense of all time. The 1964 Hogs shutout their final five foes in the regular season. How hard would it have been to play quarterback for that Arkansas team?
Grovey took the Hogs to back-to-back Cotton Bowls. Some think he’s the best of all-time at Arkansas. I won’t argue with his body of work as a four-year star. The ultimate competitor, he went from a fast and quick option operator, to a solid passer by his last two seasons. Like Matt Jones, he was as fun to watch because of electric speed and running ability as anyone to ever play at Arkansas.
But that electricity is just what made Mallett special. Mallett made fans want to be there for a no pads practice in the spring or on a 100-degree day in August. Mallett brought fireworks to the most mundane of workouts. How far and how fast could he throw it? That was the talk on the grass banks of the practice fields as mouths fell open when that long right arm flicked forward.
And he was special. I was impressed with the way he developed in all areas. He improved his off-the-field habits during his three years with McGee, his close mentor and quarterback coach. And he soaked up Bobby Petrino’s system starting with his redshirt year after the transfer from Michigan. Petrino gave Mallett time on Sunday nights with practices with the underclassmen and freshmen while the varsity did its conditioning and worked out bumps from the previous days games.
Paul Petrino saw enough of Mallett during those Sunday night workouts to predict greatness to this writer in an off-the-record comment just before Mallett’s second spring and ahead of his first game with the Hogs. He’ll be special and he’ll play at the next level, Paul Petrino said. And he said, “We won’t have him on the field but two years, if that long. He’s that good. It’s not just his arm. He’s got the talent to lead. He wants to be good. He wants to learn the game.”
And the Petrinos, along with McGee, taught it to him. Mallett got better and better. He learned the system, the checks, the reads and the way to work the running game. The Hogs meshed as an offense with Mallett under center. And his teammates followed him out of the abyss to 18 victories in the toughest conference in America. The way they played with Mallett in the six-game winning streak to close the regular season restored the pride in Razorback football for Arkies everywhere. They flooded to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl for an incredible week of fun. There may have been 50,000 cheering the Hogs, rocking the Superdome and Bourbon Street.
Petrino should get the bulk of the credit for that week in New Orleans, but Mallett played a role, too. His presence was huge in the days soon after Petrino signed to coach the Hogs. Mallett’s transfer from Michigan was validation that the Hogs had a big arm to lead the passing offense. He helped recruit Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs in that first class and others the last two years noted Mallett’s influence.
The coaches polished Mallett’s talent. And Mallett got better off the field with McGee giving him both stern and gentle pushes. I also give credit to new football sports information director Zack Higbee for giving Mallett’s off-the-field conduct some polish. Mallett’s interviews got better and better. He was a solid face of the program for the national media.
Higbee ran Tim Tebow’s campaign for the Heisman Trophy at Florida as a part of that school’s SID staff. He did a nice job with Mallett, but the cards just fell in another direction.
The final pass against Ohio State is still too fresh for some fans for them to realize what they had in Mallett. There is hurt when the last game is a loss and it’s a BCS chance. But Mallett was superb in the Sugar Bowl. His 24 of 47 night for 277 yards was tarnished with only one interception, that final throw. But how many balls did teammates drop? How many of them should have gone for touchdowns?
“The last play?” said tight end D. J. Williams. “Ryan’s last pass? Come on. You can’t do that to him there. I won’t remember that one. How about the play before that. He threw me a perfect pass and I dropped it. That was a big play. If I catch that one, we are rolling to the end zone. No telling where I was going to end up and we were going to score. No, that’s the one I’ll remember.”
McGee wouldn’t put the last one on Mallett anyway.
“He did what he was coached to do,” McGee said. “The defensive end dropped out and Ryan didn’t see him. The blitz pressure was coming from the other side, and he turned and delivered it where he was coached to go. It just didn’t work out. That’s a read, turn and throw.
“Ryan threw it great (in the Sugar Bowl). He had the ball going in the right spot all night. There were a bunch of drops and that happens sometimes after you’ve had a 38-day layoff before a bowl. That was the problem tonight, not Ryan. Our guys didn’t go up and catch his passes. They didn’t go get them. They were there.”
That’s the way it is with quarterbacks. They are only as good as what happens around them, even when they are great. But make no mistake about what we saw the last two seasons at Arkansas, Mallett was a great one. He was the right quarterback at the perfect time. That’s how I’ll remember Ryan Mallett.