Mallett comes full circle at Arkansas

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

As eager as the Arkansas fans are to see Ryan Mallett at the controls of the Hogs’ offense this season, he’s just as eager to see what this offense can do fully stocked.

The first glimpse comes in Saturday’s opener against Missouri State in Little Rock.

“It’s a great feeling, when you have 10 to 12 guys who can catch it or touch it at any time and go score,” Mallett said. “You gotta love that.”

To say that Mallett has taken a circuitous route to being Arkansas’ starting quarterback is putting it mildly. Born in Batesville, Ark., he grew up an Arkansas fan and used to help park cars at games. He attended Houston Nutt’s camps as a kid and told everybody who would listen that he was going to play football, basketball and baseball for the Hogs one day.

When that day came, Mallett didn’t feel the situation was right for him at Arkansas.

“I kind of ruled them out about two months before I made my decision,” Mallett recalled. “I’d known coach Nutt for a while and liked him. But, really, it was all the off-the-field stuff he was tied up in. It might not have been his fault. But all that stuff was going on with people transferring, and I didn’t want to get caught up in all that.”

So he chose Michigan and played in 11 games as a freshman. But when Lloyd Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season and Rich Rodriguez replaced him with his spread offense, Mallett knew his days in Ann Arbor were numbered.

When deciding where he would finish his college career, Mallett turned back to his roots.

And it just so happened that Bobby Petrino was sitting there at Arkansas with an offense that was a perfect fit for a pocket passer the caliber of Mallett.

“I’ve grown up a lot since I left Michigan,” Mallett said. “That was a tough deal. It was a life experience I had to deal with, and it wasn’t easy. Some people don’t think I handled it the right way or whatever. But I had to do what I had to do for myself. I loved going to the University of Michigan. It was great to be a part of a rich tradition like that, but it wasn’t the best thing for me.

“Coming here and being with Coach Petrino and this coaching staff … I think I’ve matured quite a bit.”

The 6-foot-7 Mallett is down to 235 pounds after getting up over 260 at one point.

“I’m at a weight where I can move around a little more, and the year off also helped me,” he said. “I feel like I really know this offense. You have to keep on learning if you’re going to play for Coach Petrino, but I have a good grasp of what we’re doing.”

To Mallett’s teammates, his feel for this offense has been what’s set him apart and not so much his legendary arm strength.

“He’s out there telling everybody what to run, what read to make, and if a linebacker moves a certain way, he knows he needs to check down to the curl or check down to the hitch or hit the post above,” junior tight end D.J. Williams said. “He sounds like a coach out there.”

And, yes, he also has the ability to make any throw and the confidence to fit the ball into the tightest of spots.

“I always think there’s no throw I can’t make,” Mallett said.

Williams said Mallett’s precision breeds confidence in everybody else on offense.

“His mechanics are unbelievable, the way he releases that ball and the way he can put it on the spot,” said Williams, who caught 61 passes last season. “There are times we go out and throw, and he’s kind of mouthing to the defense a little bit because he’s able to throw off a defense a couple of inches just with his eyes and then sneaks that ball right into the sweet spot.”

Dan Marino was one of Mallett’s first football heroes. But as he grew as a quarterback, Mallett began to follow Tom Brady.

“He doesn’t have the strongest arm in the world, but he knows where to go with the football every time,” Mallett explained.

Mallett does have a strong arm, one of the strongest in the college game. But as he says himself, it’s hardly a long-drive contest when you’re playing quarterback, especially in this league.

“It’s being smart and using the guys around you … and I love what I’ve got around me,” he said.