FAYETTEVILLE — Brandon Allen has never been part of something so frustrating.
Sure, there have been challenging times in football. He was a backup during Arkansas’ 4-8 season in 2012, starting in a 52-0 loss to Alabama in place of injured quarterback Tyler Wilson. But even that experience — Allen’s first significant work as a Razorback — paled in comparison to last fall.
Every moment felt like a nightmare: the innocent-looking dive that separated his throwing shoulder on Sept. 14. The pain-killing injections that were required just to play on Saturdays the rest of the year. The continuity issues that handicapped Arkansas’ passing offense. The interceptions, fumbles and endless mistakes.
“I’ve been here when we’ve had bad years, obviously,” Allen said. “But myself, I’ve never really been part of a losing season like that.
“That was definitely something I don’t want to go through again.”
Allen, who shouldered the brunt of the blame because of his status as Arkansas’ starting quarterback, is leading the charge to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The junior has no interest in making excuses for his struggles or seeking vengeance for the criticism, which included his truck being pelted by eggs. Instead, Allen said he’s healthy, hungry and ready to make sure Arkansas doesn’t relive the woes.
There’s no doubt his performance will be critical to making it a reality after completing just 49.6 percent of his passes for 1,552 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. Arkansas knows its passing offense must take big strides, so all eyes will be on the second-year starter when the Razorbacks kick off the 2014 season with a big test at No. 6 Auburn on Saturday.
But Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney believes the past few months have proven the quarterback will be ready to make the most of his second chance.
“Our kids have had to go through eight or nine months of hearing how bad we played all last fall and that means something to them,” Chaney said. “If you have any competitive spirit, it means a lot to you. And for particularly the quarterback position. It means a lot to Brandon. He’s a competitive guy. So he went to work.”
Allen, who separated his AC joint in mid-September and admitted he rarely practiced the rest of the season, needed roughly two weeks of rest after the season-ending loss at LSU. Then the road to redemption began with rehabilitation. Allen worked to regain strength in his shoulder with the help of Arkansas strength coach Ben Herbert and trainer Matt Summers, getting it back to pre-dive form.
There also was an emphasis on self-evaluation. Allen wanted to know what went wrong, why they happened and how to fix them. So he combed through every ugly detail, breaking down film of his performance from the 2013 season.
“I basically watched the most film you could probably watch from last year,” Allen said. “And really critiqued every area of my game and what I could do to make myself a better player and help this team win more ball games.”
But even that wasn’t enough to satisfy Allen.
The next step was a trip to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Allen spent time with former Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, who is now an instructor at IMG Academy, after spring drills. He worked on mechanics. He improved his footwork.
Allen believes it has made a noticeable difference on the practice field.
“I had heard a lot of great things,” Allen said. “I learned a lot of things from him. Mainly lower half, my base and my footwork that kind of deal. I think that’s really helped me a lot this year in the pocket and a lot with accuracy and ball strength.”
His teammates believe Allen has grown in other areas, too.
The quarterback was one of the unquestioned leaders of Arkansas’ summer work, taking a more vocal role in preparation. Allen said it was one of his goals after letting other veterans like former Hogs Travis Swanson and Kiero Small handle it last year.
Allen’s efforts were noticed. He was one of four players named team captains, joining Brey Cook, Alan Turner and Trey Flowers. Allen is the only junior.
“I’ve seen the biggest growth in him,” Arkansas running back Alex Collins said. “He’s become that leader that we wanted him to become as a quarterback. He’s been encouraging us and bringing us along on the way. All of us are learning from him.”
But Allen also has had plenty of other important allies within the program.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has never wavered in his support of Allen, repeatedly calling him the program’s best quarterback. The competition for the starting job was considered “open” in the spring, but Allen never stepped away from first-team work.
“It’s a huge confidence boost for me,” Allen said. “As a player you’re not always looking over shoulder and thinking, ‘If I mess up I’m going to be pulled out.’ Or, ‘ If I do this he might get in front of me.’ So I think when a coach has that much confidence in you to be the guy that it only boosts your confidence as well.”
Chaney, who has worked with his share of talented quarterbacks throughout his career, remains a big influence on Allen’s development as well.
Tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr., who played quarterback at Arkansas and had an AC joint injury in his career, has been an available confidant when needed.
“My relation and my angle with Brandon is simply, ‘Hey, I’ve been in your shoes. I know what it’s like to be from Arkansas. I know what it’s like to be the guy. I know what it’s like to get a lot of blame. I know what it’s like to get credit,” said Lunney Jr., who played from 1992-95. “And I know what it’s like to play at a time where there’s transition, where you kind of say maybe you’re in a rebuilding or reshaping of a program mode. I can relate to all those things. So we’ve had some talks.”
But Lunney has been impressed with Allen’s approach has he moves past 2013.
“People talk about leadership and I think a lot of times it’s made too much to fabricate leadership. Or to manufacture it, to a degree,” Lunney Jr. said. “The ultimate best way to lead is to do what you’re asked, do it well and do it consistently.
“I think Brandon’s a great example of that. He just kind of kept his mouth shut, got better and (went) to work. And there’s no doubt in my mind that our football team looks to him as our leader. So, I think we’re in a real healthy spot with him now.”
Allen combined to complete 31 of 50 passes for 409 yards and 5 touchdowns without an interception in Arkansas’ two preseason scrimmages open to the public.
The Razorbacks are hoping for a higher completion percentage when the season begins, but teammates say Allen has been sharp behind closed doors.
“I think the huge difference for him is just the second year in an offense,” said tight end AJ Derby, who was the backup quarterback in 2013. “He knows it so much better. It’s instant. He doesn’t have to think. He’s just natural. He reads defenses and doesn’t have to think about his progression. He’s just been playing a lot better.”
Said receive Keon Hatcher: “BA is going to be a special player. I just can’t wait to see him shine. All that bad writing last year, that will be reversed this season.”
No one will know for sure until game day, though. That’s when Allen’s improvement, confidence and ability to lead the Razorbacks truly will be tested.
Allen said the good news is his shoulder is 100 percent. Arkansas believes it has surrounded its quarterback with more weapons at wide receiver, tight end and in the backfield, too. So Allen believes the pieces are in place to take a big step.
“It’s really just about utilizing those weapons,” Allen said. “Get it into the hands of running backs on check downs or handing it off and get it to the playmakers at receiver and tight end. I know the offensive line is going to protect it up for me and give me the time to do that. So it’s all about me just delivering it to those weapons.”
Chaney said he’s confident the quarterback, who learned some hard lessons in his first season as a starter, is prepared to make it happen. Last year wasn’t easy, but Arkansas is confident Allen’s efforts ensure he won’t endure the same struggles.
“I think he’s worked so hard,” Chaney said. “When you work something so hard and you invest so much, there’s a level of confidence that you have to develop. He’s at that point right now. It’s time for Brandon to go on the field and play a game.”
Robbie Neiswanger writes for the Arkansas News Bureau and can be e-mailed at email@example.com
A Closer Look At … QUARTERBACKS
Best of the Bunch: Brandon Allen — He didn’t have a sophomore year to remember, but Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has left no doubt about his starting quarterback for 2013. Allen’s shoulder has healed. He put in plenty of work in the offseason, too, to improve mechanics and accuracy. It’s no secret Arkansas will need a big season from Allen to take a step forward in the SEC this fall.
Watch Out For: Austin Allen — The redshirt freshman won the backup job in preseason battle with freshman Rafe Peavey. Allen’s comfort in the offense has been noticeable in preseason scrimmage, showing more command and confidence. He’s not perfect by any means, but the Razorbacks feel much better about their backup quarterback situation now that Allen has had a full year in the offense.
Biggest Question: Is Brandon Allen really capable of leading Arkansas’ resurgence? The Razorbacks have spent the offseason talking about their quarterback’s improvement and confidence, but the junior must prove it on the field. He’ll be tested right away with the opener at Auburn. How well Allen answers the challenges will play a big factor in Arkansas’ success this season.
Projected Starter: Brandon Allen, Jr., (128 of 258 for 1,552 yards with 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions in 11 starts last season)
Other Contributors: Austin Allen, RS-Fr.; Rafe Peavey, Fr.
That Figures: 49.8 — Arkansas’ completion percentage last season, which ranked last in the SEC. The blame doesn’t fall solely on the quarterback, but Allen and the Razorbacks know there must be significant improvement to get out of the SEC cellar. Allen has completed just 48.5 percent of his passes in 16 games during his career.
Quotable: “Probably. I think so. Nothing against AJ and those guys, but Austin has been here a year and knows the offense better than AJ did at this time last year. I think that would be safe to say that.” — Chaney on if he feels more comfortable with Arkansas’ backup quarterback situation going into the season.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau