Photo: Walt Beazley, ArkansasRazorbacks.com
If you trace the play of Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen through the 2016 season, you’ll find when he played well, the Razorbacks either won or had a shot at winning. However, when he struggled, the Hogs usually lost.
That’s not much of a secret, though. Most teams rise and fall with the play of their quarterback, don’t they? Or is it that their quarterbacks rise and fall with the play of the teams?
I guess there is a good bit of truth in both statements.
In reviewing Allen’s stats and how each of the Razorbacks’ games flowed last season, I’d say Allen’s individual play was better than his teammates in a roller-coaster ride that saw Arkansas finish 7-6 on the season.
There were close calls and near misses by the Razorbacks and their opponents. The Hogs thumped a few opponents, but also had their clocks’ cleaned in several games. Arkansas barely won more than they lost and made it to a bowl, but it wasn’t the type of season Arkansas coach Bret Bielema or Allen envisioned, particularly losing their final two games after holding double-digit ,first-half leads.
Allen, who led the SEC in passing yardage and was ranked 20th in the nation with 3,430 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions admitted earlier this week at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., that while his stats were solid, he learned some tough lessons in his first year as a starter.
Allen’s taken those lessons to heart, and he plans to play smarter and better as a senior this fall.
“For me, I just have to take what they give me,” Allen said in statements released by SEC Media Relations from the media event. “A few times last year, I felt like I had to make a play to get us back on track. I thought I had to get out of my comfort zone, and it didn’t always work out.”
Though Allen threw 146 passes from Arkansas’ second game into its sixth game with Alabama without an interception, the Crimson Tide eventually picked Allen off three times in the 49-30 loss. Allen also threw two interceptions in a 38-10 loss to LSU, a 28-24 loss to Missouri, and three in a 35-24 loss to Virginia Tech. Ten of his 15 interceptions came in those four losses.
Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. Allen, a 6-2, 210-pound Fayetteville grad, played behind an inexperienced offensive line that had trouble achieving a push in the running game as well as protecting their quarterback in passing situations.
Allen played under duress in most games from opposing pass rushers. Once opposing teams sufficiently shut down Arkansas’ rushing game, Allen had little room or time to breathe in the pocket much less conduct Arkansas’ offense. His offensive line allowed 35 sacks last season.
After reviewing film from last season in the winter and spring, Allen said he could have been more judicious with his throws.
“Punting isn’t always the worst thing,” Allen said. “This year if I get four yards on a 3rd-and-6, I know that [punting] is playing field position and flipping the field. Knowing the scenario of the game and the down and distance will really help me out, by playing smarter and staying in the flow of the game better.”
Bielema mostly liked the way Allen played last season, but he and offensive coordinator Dan Enos have given Allen guidance that should help him play a smarter brand of football.
“Austin has done some pretty good things,” Bielema said. “There’s some things he has to do better. We had conversations about that.”
But Bielema does like the moxie of the coach’s son who grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Brandon, Bielema’s Razorback quarterback from 2013-15, and usually ended up outplaying him.
“I wouldn’t do anything but truly sit back and watch a guy that’s going to be able to go to some heights that people never thought he would be able to do,” Bielema said. “In the end, he’ll probably be the one smiling.”
Bielema said he offered Allen some guidance that has paid off for the quarterback when he first moved down the street from Fayetteville High.
“I said, hey, here’s three things you can do. You can sit and watch your brother play, that’s kind of cool.” Bielema said. “You can also learn through your brother’s failures, which isn’t going to be a lot of fun, but still watch it happen. And the third this thing is you can enjoy the success and understand why it happened.
“I think he did that. He was there on every trial and tribulation. He survived it. He lived it. He also saw how he had to handle. To be a starting quarterback in the SEC is not an easy task on the field or off the field. You got a lot of things coming at you.”
Allen said he believes the Razorbacks are ready to compete in the SEC despite the legitimate questions about a team that lost its best running back when Rawleigh Williams injured his neck and retired from football during the spring and has only one SEC-proven receiver in Jared Cornelius returning this season.
“I think we have a really talented group in the SEC, as good as we’ve had it in a long time,” said Allen, who grew up around the program with his dad, Bobby Allen, being on the football staff in one capacity or the other since 1998. “I’m really excited to see everyone play this year. I have a lot of confidence in myself so I’m just going to try to work really hard.”
Allen said the disappointments of last season, particularly the back-to-back, season-ending losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech, have provided plenty of motivation for the team when they have needed it most. The Hogs strain in their workouts to go the extra mile.
“That has been our M.O. since after the Virginia Tech game and going into winter conditioning,” Allen said. “We might think we are done, but then we run another four or five sprints and things like that. We are putting in a lot of extra film work, especially in the summer when it is a lot of player-led stuff. Going back and watching the second half of the Missouri game and the [Virginia] Tech game, it just steams me and really has driven us this offseason.”
Allen is the unquestioned starter going into preseason drills that begin on July 27. Junior Ty Storey (6-2, 212) of Charleston closed spring practice as Arkansas’ second-team quarterback; however, red-shirt freshman Cole Kelley (6-7, 268) has a big frame and big arm with potential that excites his coaches.
It will be interesting to see which one locks down the back-up role, even though Allen is sure to play every meaningful down, if he remains healthy.