As a former star pitcher in his hometown of Greenwood, Ark., Tyler Wilson understands the importance of finishing what you started.
His sport of choice these days is football, and Wilson is more determined than ever to make his final season as Arkansas’ quarterback one they’ll remember in the Ozarks for a long time to come.
It’s not a season that will be measured in touchdown passes or passing yards, either.
It’s a season that will be measured in wins, and more precisely, in whether the Hogs can finally get over the hump in the Western Division and play for an SEC championship.
That quest begins in earnest on Wednesday, when Arkansas opens spring practice, and Wilson says with conviction that unfinished business is the primary reason he’s back for his senior season.
“This run the last couple of years where we’ve given our fans a lot to cheer about excites me,” said Wilson, who led the SEC with 3,638 passing yards last season. “But I’m even more excited to finish it up strong and leave my stamp on the program and get it to where it needs to be and where it needs to stay going forward into the future.”
Wilson sought feedback from the NFL draft advisory committee following last season and seriously considered turning pro. Some analysts have said that he could have gone in the second or third round.
“There definitely was some contemplation, probably more so than I ever thought there would be,” Wilson said. “But we have a great team, and I think, the right chemistry, to go beyond even what we did last year. That’s what I kept coming back to when I was making my decision.”
Wilson, in his first year as the starter last season, became the first Arkansas quarterback to earn first-team All-SEC honors. He led the league in passing yards, total offense, passing efficiency and completions.
What’s more, he did it without star running back Knile Davis, who missed the entire season after fracturing his ankle in the preseason.
Davis is scheduled to return for the 2012 season, and if healthy, will no doubt put a charge back into the Hogs’ running game.
But senior receiver Cobi Hamilton is back along with senior tight end Chris Gragg, and Wilson warned not to sleep on some of the Hogs’ other receivers who simply haven’t had much of a chance to play the past couple of years because they were behind Greg Childs, Wright and Adams.
“People mention the young guys, but some of these guys have been around,” Wilson said. “It’s just that they’re stepping into bigger roles now and have been there behind Joe Adams and Jarius Wright and Greg Childs and are super talented as well and finally getting their opportunity.
“It’s their time now, and I’m excited about what I’ve seen. There’s always a curve there when you go from being a backup to a starter, but they’re ready to make their mark. You have Marquel Wade, Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton. They’re all big-time players. It just goes down the line. There are a lot of players who’ve been overshadowed, and I’m extremely exited to get them the ball and let them make plays for us.”
Wilson already owns nine school records. He and his predecessor, Ryan Mallett, are the only two Arkansas quarterbacks in school history to put together 3,000-yard passing seasons.
Not only that, but in 2011 Wilson led the Hogs to their first 11-win season since 1977, and they finished No. 5 in the polls.
The resurgence of the program under Bobby Petrino has electrified the entire state.
Nonetheless, the Hogs haven’t been able to break through and play in the SEC championship game and are just 1-5 against Alabama and LSU the past three seasons.
“Coach Petrino has used the term a number of times, but you just have to keep beating on the door, and one day, that door’s going to fall in,” Wilson said. “That’s the attitude I’ve taken and one our team needs to adopt.
“We just have to be there year in and year out establishing ourselves, and we’ll get the respect we need. Obviously, we have to win the big games, and once we do that, we’ll be where we need to be. I think we’re really close.”
Wilson is also quick to note that Arkansas gets both Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville in 2012.
“That’s another positive and sets us up on the path to be where we want to be at the end of the year,” he said.
Having been exposed to just about every defensive look imaginable in his first season as the starter, Wilson wants to use this offseason to become an even better student of the game.
In his mind, that’s where he can best help his team and go from an All-SEC quarterback to a quarterback who leads his team to a championship.
“You’re a year ahead of where you were last year and there are a lot of things you understand, but there’s a constant learning curve for any quarterback,” said Wilson, who threw just six interceptions in 438 passing attempts last season.
“My ability to execute the running game increased tremendously in the month that I had to prepare for the bowl game. If I can expand on that knowledge in the run game and on how to get our offense in a better position as far as the looks the defense is giving us and get us into a positive play when a negative play is called ... that’s the next step for me.
“We’ve got to eliminate the negative plays on first and second down, and a lot of that is on the quarterback and making sure we’re running the right plays against the right looks.”