Bret Bielema doesn’t have a reputation for being a quarterback guru. Gus Malzahn or Kevin Sumlin he is not.
The system Bielema runs at Arkansas isn’t designed to put up video game numbers. It’s not a spread and it’s certainly not up tempo. His idea of fun is a jumbo formation with two tight ends and a fullback. When he had to choose who would go on the cover of the team’s media guide last year, he decided on the offensive line. Instead of his two-year starting quarterback, he went with a handful of sweaty 300-pound dudes scowling through their face masks.
But in spite of pushing an image that seems less inclined toward the passing game than most, Bielema quietly has assembled one of the deepest groups of quarterbacks in the SEC. While other programs currently are scrambling to find their next starting QB, Arkansas has given itself plenty of options.
“I’m excited,” Bielema said. “I think all four of them are great kids, great competitors.”
That’s right: four. When Arkansas opens spring camp today, there will be four quarterbacks in the running to replace the departed Brandon Allen. And before you go thinking that’s hyperbole, consider the fact that all four candidates were four-star prospects and top-25 QBs coming out of high school.
Said offensive coordinator Dan Enos: “We have some talented people.”
“They are very eager to play and practice and show people what they can do,” he added. “They all sat here patiently for the last year, some of them longer than that … patiently and impatiently waiting and working behind the scenes.”
Who was patient and who wasn't is unclear, but the order in which they’ll take reps to start spring practice is.
Without being prompted to do so, Enos provided the depth chart in reverse order when describing each of his quarterbacks:
4. Ricky Town: “I’ll start with him, he’s the newest addition. He came actually when we were within camp [last year]. He transferred obviously [from USC], so he missed a little bit on the front end. But I see a guy who has really good passing skills, a good quick release, good feet and big hands. But a guy that’s talented and is new with us and it’s his first time going through our install, so it’s been neat to see his growth already.”
3. Ty Storey: “Also a freshman. He enrolled early and got in last January. He actually got here when I got here, so we kind of came in together. Ty is a guy that’s off the charts with his football intelligence. I mean off the charts. He’s a worker who understands what we’re doing so well. He’s kind of a gamer guy who seems to play better when we put him in some team situations when he can do things where there’s some competitiveness to it and he can rise to the occasion.”
2. Rafe Peavey: “Probably the best pure passer as far as arm strength and ability to get the ball down the field. Really good feet. A guy that works hard. But tremendous arm strength.”
1. Austin Allen: “A combination of all of them. He’s a really good passer, really good arm strength, good mobility, a really hard worker and he really has a good grasp of what we’re doing too. Shoot, there were days last year during fall camp that I came in and I told our offensive staff while watching tape, ‘Little brother did better than big brother today.’ Brandon was very consistent but there were days we came in and Austin was like, ‘Whoa, that guy is good.’”
If you weren’t taking notes, the order is Allen, Peavey, Storey, Town. And if you weren’t able to read between the lines, the job is definitely Allen’s to lose.
With that said, Bielema isn’t ready to hand the reins over to anyone yet.
Even Town can't be counted out after disappointing Bielema with his limited grasp of the offense during bowl prep last season. Enos said he's been impressed with Town putting in "extra time" in the film room.
Spreading around reps won’t be easy, though. With two offensive lines and four quarterbacks, the numbers don’t add up. Bielema said they'll use virtual reality headsets as a supplement to on-field work, but that has its limitations.
Right now, Bielema is open to anything. He said that while he'd love to know who his starting quarterback will be coming out of camp, there's no mandate to do so. And while he pointed out that he won't go with quarterback-by-committee, he did say that "if one guy does something really well and another guy can’t do it, I’m not afraid to work something out in those regards."
More than anything, Bielema wants to see how his quarterbacks respond.
Chances are that whoever wins the job won't be asked to throw the ball 40 times a game, but he will need to have the trust of his head coach.
“We’ll play it out day by day -- how they handle the pressure, who is going to have success, who is going to have failure, who is going to have success and then let it go to their head and then have failure,” Bielema said. “I think it’s going to pan out in a big way.”