FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Now that he’s back where it all started for him, Ryan Mallett is the first to tell you that everything happens for a reason.
There’s a reason he didn’t go to Arkansas in the first place out of high school.
There’s a reason he stayed at Arkansas last year when the lure of the NFL prompted him to take a look at leaving school early.
“There was always that thought, but I knew where I needed to be,” Mallett said. “I mean, look at the team we had coming back. There’s lots of money and all that out there, but you only get to play college football once.
“So even if I were to get hurt, I would have no regrets, not here at Arkansas, because it’s the team I always wanted to play for.”
Mallett was a diehard Arkansas fan growing up in Texarkana. He attended Houston Nutt’s football campus and helped park cars at Razorback Stadium as a kid to get into the games free.
But with highly regarded Mitch Mustain signing with Arkansas the year before and Nutt’s footing wearing thin, Mallett decided it would be best for him to head to Michigan.
That’s until Rich Rodriquez and his version of the spread offense showed up in Ann Arbor. It was anything but a fit for Mallett, who decided to transfer after one season with the Wolverines.
Tennessee, Texas A&M and UCLA were all possibilities. But he wasn’t going to pass on Arkansas a second time, especially with Bobby Petrino ready to hand over the keys to his pass-intensive offense.
“Ever since I was knee-high, it was the Hogs all the way,” Mallett said. “I knew it was the right decision.”
While he hasn’t been practicing this spring because of a broken bone in his left foot, Mallett has immersed himself in everything the Hogs have done. He just hasn’t been able to take the reps.
More than ever, this has become his team.
“I’ve really been impressed with how he’s handled it,” Petrino said. “It’s killing him not being out there because he’s such a competitor, but he’s into every play and every meeting. He knows every call and has helped make everybody around him better.”
Mallett threw 30 touchdown passes last season and set a long list of school records. His talent is immense and his arm strength legendary.
“Even his touch passes hurt,” senior tight end D.J. Williams joked.
But where Mallett figures to go from one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country to one of the best quarterbacks in the country next season is with his consistency.
Petrino has no doubt that Mallett will be a more technically sound quarterback in 2010.
“The consistency with his footwork is the first thing, so he doesn’t have errant throws by his own doing,” Petrino said. “He needs to have a little more confidence with his offensive line, so he keeps his focus down the field, and as the year went on last season, he got a lot better at that.
“The other thing is being more accurate on the medium-range throws. I thought his accuracy deep was really good last year, and he did a nice job in the quick passing game. But he’s got to become more accurate on the 15-yard curls and 15-yard ins.”
And on third down is where all great quarterbacks sparkle.
“As an offense, we’ll be better at converting those,” said Mallett, who completed 55.8 percent of his passes. “We’ll take the big play any time we can get it, but you’ve also got to move the chains.”
Even though he’s still wearing the boot around the practice field, Mallett is already throwing in some drills. He expects to be full go by the start of June.
He looks a lot like a basketball player now and is down to 232 pounds. When he arrived at Arkansas in January 2008, he was 265. He expects to put on a few more pounds and play next season at 240-plus like he did a year ago.
“We’re just ready to get out there and compete, to take this thing to the next level,” Mallett said. “We like the high expectations and thrive on them.”