Brandon Allen isn’t shying away from the competition. Despite starting 11 games at quarterback for Arkansas last season, he knows nothing is guaranteed. There are others ready to take his spot at the drop of a hat: AJ Derby, who started one game and saw action in seven contests; Rafe Peavey, a four-star prospect who enrolled early so he could participate in spring practice; even Allen's younger brother, Austin, who redshirted last season.
When coach Bret Bielema said prior to spring practice that Allen would be with the first-team offense “in theory,” he essentially threw down the gauntlet: “Who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position. If it’s B.A. that’s great. If it’s not, hopefully that next person is ready.”
Allen sounds ready to keep fighting for his job.
“My mindset is I’m the starter and I need to go out and prove to everyone that I’m still the starter,” Allen told ESPN.com on Wednesday. “Obviously the competition fuels all of us, especially with me. It makes me want to perform better than everyone else.”
Allen wasn’t far and away better than everyone else last season. Though he started strong -- 388 yards, five touchdowns and one interception in Arkansas’ first three games, all wins -- he didn’t end that way, finishing with an underwhelming 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His 49.6 completion percentage left something to be desired, falling well behind league leaders Johnny Manziel (69.9 percent), Bo Wallace (64.8 percent) and even Austin Carta-Samuels (68.7 percent).
The good news is Allen is only beginning to come into his own. Last spring he was a sophomore trying to learn an entirely new offense. This year he’s much better prepared to execute what coaches ask of him.
“I have a lot more confidence,” Allen said. “Playing that whole year, just getting the experience of SEC football and getting that under my belt, has been huge for me, especially coming into the spring and making myself more of a leader. I think that whole confidence level for me has been a huge boost.”
Bielema has noticed. After Allen completed 17 of 20 passes for 247 yards, a touchdown and one interception in Arkansas’ first scrimmage last Saturday, Bieliema told reporters he has seen a change in his quarterback ever since the start of spring practice.
“He looks different physically. He plays different. He has got so much composure,” Bielema said. “What I love there -- not that I wanted to see it -- but when we had a couple of guys jump offsides he really let the huddle have an awareness of what we needed to do and what was expected. You like to have your quarterback step up in that fashion.”
Allen said he’s gotten bigger, faster and stronger in the weight room this offseason. And that has translated to more durability and better arm strength, he explained. But it becomes clear even in the briefest of conversations that he’s more interested in control of a different kind. He wants to lead.
“As an offense, we need to be clicking on all cylinders,” Allen said. “We can’t be making little mistakes -- jumping offsides, doing little things that hurt ourselves. I think if we clean up those details and finish up the spring on track, we’ll be a tough offense to stop. Really it’s all about not hurting ourselves and doing the right things.”
Allen knows that he had quite a bit to work on as well. He watched the film and saw where he could have done better.
There were highs, he said, pointing to close games where it could have gone either way. There were lows, too, where he and the offense struggled to hold up their end of the bargain.
Proving he’s ready to be the starter once again is about getting over the hump.
“I’ve taken things I’ve learned from last season and applying it, even to the new things we’re installing,” he said. “I’m making myself more of a perfectionist, just not making many mistakes is what I’m trying to pride myself on.”
The starting job is ostensibly Allen’s to lose. Just don’t tell him that.
Derby didn’t distinguish himself in limited time last season. There were plenty of opportunities for Bielema to pull the redshirt off of his two freshmen, but he didn’t for a reason. And Peavey, talented though he may be, is still far too young to be expected to grasp an offense and run with it.
Allen thinks of himself as the starter, but at the same time he’s not taking it for granted. As he said, “You can’t make mistakes in a competition.” When you do, someone is always there to take advantage.
“Everyone wants to be the top guy, but there can be only one,” he said.