State of the Hogs: QB Analysis

Matt Jones

How long does it take for a sophomore quarterback to grasp a new system? It's different for all, but some Arkansas legends think Brandon Allen can lead Razorbacks.

Can Bret Bielema out-Alabama Alabama? Fred Marshall answered the question that wasn't really asked.

It was the best stuff in the interview. Perhaps great quarterbacks know the questions better than the reporters. And, make no mistake about it, Marshall was one of the best ever at Arkansas.

Ryan Mallett, Tyler Wilson, Clint Stoerner, Joe Ferguson and Bill Montgomery have a lot of the UA passing records. Billy Moore has the only All-America certificate among Arkansas quarterbacks. Marshall has the only national championship. He was the man under center in the 11-0 season of 1964.

Marshall was on the road from Little Rock where he visited family back to his Dallas-area home when we visited for about 20 minutes. It was wonderful stuff. I want to do it again.

It was near the end, after much talk about the task facing third-year sophomore Brandon Allen as Bielema's first Arkansas quarterback. My question, as asked also to Joe Ferguson and Matt Jones later, was simple. How tough will it be for Allen this year in the SEC?

None of the great Arkansas quarterbacks expect it to be easy. But, Marshall likes the way Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney are going about installing the system. Yes, you have to throw. But building with a running game and strong defense is the way Arkansas won its national championship.

No one throws five shutouts to end the season like the Razorbacks did it in ‘64. That is lost on some today. The rules are changed and shutouts are almost extinct. But there aren't many great teams without great defense even today. That was Marshall's point.

"I think that's the way to play," Marshall said. "That much hasn't changed. I think that's still the way you have to play to win in the SEC. Don't make mistakes -- and I'm talking about across the board and not just quarterback -- and play great defense. You can out-Alabama Alabama.

"Teams that play great defense and don't turn the ball over, what this team is being coached to do, they can win championships. This coach is preaching that. It's his system. He wants a quarterback that doesn't make mistakes."

Of course, Marshall was a senior, not a sophomore. He is proud of the way he played, limiting mistakes. In fact, he pointed to that as the difference in ‘64. He said he went to the field each game with one purpose, "Don't get our team beat. No mistakes. Be a great leader and let the guys around me win."

No one is going to confuse the 2013 Arkansas defense with the unit that sent a front eight onto the field featuring Loyd Phillips and Jim Williams at tackle, Bobby Roper and Jim Finch at end, Jimmy Johnson at middle guard, Ronnie Caveness and Ronnie Mac Smith at linebacker and Charles Daniel at monster. And then there was a great secondary with Ken Hatfield, Harry Jones and Bill Gray.

It struck me as incredible when I looked at some of the defensive numbers in 64. Baylor got only 40 snaps, TCU just 42. That's the fourth and seventh fewest for a game in school history. The defense was only on the field for 566 snaps all of 1964, third fewest in UA history.

Yes, that's great defense, but it's also ball control on offense and limiting mistakes, most notably at quarterback. Marshall, injured and out for Tulsa, threw only eight interceptions in 10 games. He completed 53 percent of his 94 passes and rarely made a bad decision.

"Our turnover numbers were so small," Marshall said. "We didn't fumble. We didn't make mistakes. We were consistent.

"I guess if there was a description for Fred Marshall, it would be that he wasn't a great runner, not a great passer, but didn't make any mistakes. I'm certain I'm not in the top 10 in about any statistical list for Razorback quarterbacks. But I don't think many of them made fewer mistakes.

"See, that's how I think you beat Alabama, don't turn it over on offense. I think that's what this coach can do for our team." Can Brandon Allen do that as a sophomore? "I'd say having been on the field at quarterback, the key thing is how do you handle adversity," Marshall said. "It's not a matter of talent, but experience. I know he is talented or he wouldn't be there. But he's going to have to face some adversity and learn how to handle it."

Joe Ferguson didn't start as a sophomore. He played behind senior Bill Montgomery -- and he did play -- in his first year of eligibility in 1970. That was during the days of mandatory freshman redshirts, although he was the star of the Shoats that often drew big crowds to watch the nation's top quarterback recruit.

More notably, Ferguson coached quarterbacks in the SEC, grooming sophomores Clint Stoerner in 1997 and Robby Hampton in 2000. It was clear that he believes in Allen's background, both at Fayetteville under Zak Clark, and as Bobby Allen's son.

"He's played in a very good high school system," Ferguson said. "That's important. He's been in a good quarterback system (at Arkansas). Plus, I know Bobby Allen and the way he's been raised. To come out of a home where they think football so much is important. He will fit better than most.

"But the thing that he's going to have to figure out is how to learn that new system perfectly, then step into that huddle and apply it all. "I don't know the responsibility Jim Chaney gives the quarterback to change plays, but having coached in the SEC, he better be prepared for pressures. They are going to come after a young quarterback in the SEC. That's what coordinators are doing now getting ready for Arkansas, getting their pressure calls lined up."

The checks don't have to be much, Ferguson said. One or two checks out of blitz looks is all it takes. He's sure that Chaney's system, after watching Tennessee, has plenty built into the calls at the line.

"He'll have a few safety checks that can get him out of a bad play," he said. "That's the key for a sophomore quarterback, to be able to execute just a couple of checks."

It's a big deal to be minimal in what a young quarterback is asked to do in a game. That's how you keep from making bad plays at the quarterback position.

"One of the first things I always talked to my guys about when I coached quarterbacks, don't cost the team a game," Ferguson said. "I think Brandon Allen is good enough. I think he's probably smart enough. Now, you don't want to be too conservative. That helps the defense. But you want to be able to take care of the team and eliminate mistakes."

Ferguson watches a lot of football. "I saw Tennessee under Chaney," he said. "They threw it. They had the kind of quarterback to do that. But you were watching a veteran quarterback last year at Tennessee. There's a difference. You can do a lot with an older quarterback.

"I always say practice it great, but it's practice. Games are games and they are different. It's a totally different speed. Again, Brandon is blessed to be coming out of a coaching family and a big-time high school system, but it's going to take time for it to come together in the SEC. It always does."

Matt Jones played as a freshman and started as a true sophomore. He ran the option and there was a sprinkle of passing. But he was the downhill runner (and the blur to the outside) that made the safeties play run. Consequently, he got some one-on-one passes against corners. That's what Chaney hopes downhill running in Bielema's system gets for Allen.

It's just a matter of time before it all falls in place. Jones said it took time for him and he knows things will slow down for Allen at some point, too. All the great quarterbacks talk about the moment that the game slowed down and became easier both before and after the snap.

"It takes going through everything quite a few times before it all clicks," Jones said. "That's when the speed slows down.

"Make no mistake, it's going to be moving real fast at the start for Brandon. He's got a new coach, a new system and new terminology from what he's had. It just takes time.

"When you have a new offensive coordinator, he's going to be putting new things in for awhile. So the offense isn't done as far as installations. They are still doing that. Then, as far as a young player, it takes time for him to get all of that.

"They've had spring, they've had summer 7-on-7 and they are going to have August workouts. But they are going against their own defense. It isn't the same as what they will see from an opposing defense. And nothing in practice or 7-on-7 is like the speed of an SEC game. It just gets faster in games.

"The only thing that is going to get Brandon the speed of the game will be games, real live action. The other stuff is not the real deal.

"Brandon is not a freshman, but he's a young player. As far as freshman, there was only one in my time at Arkansas ready to play his first game and be the best player on the field, Shawn Andrews. True, some freshmen can help, but they aren't the best player on the field. You just hope they can become that player sometime in their four years with the team.

"There will be a learning curve for Brandon and for the other young players, the freshmen that are coming in. The good news, there are a few nonconference games before the tough part of the schedule hits. I always thought that the biggest jump -- and I'm talking quarterback -- took place between week one and week four. Everybody is different. But it clicked for me after about four weeks. I think it really slowed down during those Cotton Bowl practices, really slowed down because of the extra practice time.

"For Brandon Allen, it will click. I think he's talented enough. There will be a moment he remembers where things changed and he caught up to the speed. It will happen."

That's when the mistakes disappear, the offense becomes smooth and the leadership takes over in the huddle. Teammates see it about the same time the quarterback feels it. Then, can Arkansas out-Alabama Alabama?

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