FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – This scenario has played out before for Austin Allen. And it played out well.
Allen is a junior quarterback at the University of Arkansas. For the last three years, he’s mostly watched from the bench as his big brother Brandon led the high-powered Razorbacks offense. But Brandon has graduated now, and now it’s Austin’s turn to take over.
The same scenario played out five years ago at Fayetteville High School. After Brandon started for three years before heading off to Arkansas, Austin took over and started for two years. All he did was win two state championships.
He was that good, and the transition was that easy.
And it will be again.
“You never knew back then that Austin was a first-year starter, and I really believe it will be the same thing at U of A,” said Daryl Patton, the legendary football coach at Fayetteville High School who has won four state titles in his 14 years there and coached both Allen boys.
“He’s been sitting and watching and listening and learning and he will be ready to play. He has all the talent in the world but he’s also very, very smart.
“He’s one of those really cool John Wayne types, where nothing upsets him. He’ll be able to handle everything they throw at him and I am completely confident that he’s going to have a lot of success there.”
Allen – who is quick to remind people that his Fayetteville success “was a long time ago” – isn’t guaranteed a starting spot yet, but he was the leader as spring practice started on Tuesday. He’ll get plenty of competition from Rafe Peavey, Ty Storey and Ricky Town, all of whom were touted recruits as well.
But it’s Allen who was the backup last year and he’s spent more time on the field than the rest of them. It is, for all intents and purposes, his job to lose. But he doesn’t look at it that way at all.
“It’s my job to win, just like the rest of the guys, It’s not mine to lose,” Allen said after the Razorbacks’ first practice on Tuesday. “We’re all just trying to get better every day. Sure, we all want the job and it gets heated at times, but at the end of the day we’re all friends. We’re all working hard together.”
Granted, it’s a long way from high school to SEC football, but in Allen’s case it’s really short. Like just a few feet. His old high school is across the street from the Arkansas campus, “just a block away,” Patton says.
The Allen boys grew up as Fayetteville legends, and that hasn’t changed. Brandon had a good career at Arkansas and had a great senior year, throwing for 3,440 yards and 30 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. He blossomed under first-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos, and Patton expects the same of Austin.
“They get great coaching there and I think it’s an environment where Austin will be able to do some big things too,” said Patton, who says he and his staff have “an open door” to spend time with the Hogs coaches as they need to. Patton has seven former players in the U of A program. “For all they put on Brandon’s plate last year, he handled all of that great. Austin’s capable of doing the same things.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema didn’t have a formal depth chart set going into the spring, but he’s informally anointed Allen as the starter. He was the first guy in the huddle on Tuesday.
“There’s a defined depth chart just because of time being here,” Bielema said. “I think Austin’s had a great spring, really wants to take the next step. It’s going to be fun to watch him go out there.”
Allen doesn’t mind following in his brother’s footsteps one bit. He’s done it before, sure, but he also had a great spot to watch his brother tear up the SEC last year.
“Why not want to play at that level?” Austin said. “He led the nation in QBR (rating) last year (according to ESPN). He’s my brother, but we don’t really look at it that way on the field. He likes to run a little more than I do. I’ll hang in there a little longer. And he’s more serious than I am. I’m a little more laid back, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get fired up out there. When I got hacked in a practice last year (during bowl preparations) for throwing a bad interception, I was pissed. I don’t like making mistakes at all.”
Allen has had a few chances to show coaches a thing or two. He played against Ole Miss in 2014 and did well and he had to prepare as a starter a few times last year before an injured Brandon Allen answered the bell on Saturdays.
“Even though I was a two, I always prepared as though I was the one,” Allen said of his 2015 season. “I was always ready to go. It prepared me well for now. It was nice being the leader out there today, keeping a good tempo. Everyone sort of goes at our pace, so we got a lot of good work done. I feel very comfortable with the playbook and the offense. I’m ready.”
Second-year offensive coordinator Dan Enos speaks highly of Allen, and always has.
“He’s a really hard worker and he really has a good grasp of what we’re doing too,” Enos told ESPN earlier this week. “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.’”
Austin Allen is competing to win the Arkansas QB job. He’s been competing w/his brother, Brandon, his whole life. pic.twitter.com/vFgBbUUkrx
— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) March 29, 2016
Patton, the high school coach, can relate. Though he loved coaching both Allens – “they did more for me than I ever did for them,” he said – he remembers being able to joke with them all the time when they played together.
“I used to tease Brandon his senior year, asking him what it was going to be like to hold the clipboard for his little brother,” Patton said. “But they were always great together. Brandon was so great last year and no one enjoyed that more than Austin. They’ve been really good for each other. They’re two great kids.”
Allen should probably be the guy when the Razorbacks open the season on Sept. 3 at home against Louisiana Tech. But it’s not a sure thing. The quarterback room is filled with four talented guys, and a fifth arrives in the fall.
“The competition is good,” Allen said. “It makes us all better.”
Here are the other contenders:
Rafe Peavey, the man with the golden arm
Peavey has been in Fayetteville has been in Fayetteville for two years now but hasn’t played a down yet. “You guys haven’t seen him, but we have,” Bielema said. “He’s done some good things.”
Peavey, a 6-foot-2, 203-pounder from Boliver, Mo., has a legitimate shot at this job. He has all the tools, and was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. He will get a good look.
“He’s probably the best pure passer – as far as arm strength and ability – to get the ball down the field,” Enos told ESPN earlier this week. “Really good feet. A guy that works hard. Tremendous arm strength.”
Ricky Town, the unproven prodigy
None of this group had a bigger high school reputation that Town. The California native was considered one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the class of 2015 – he was No. 6 in the 247Sports composite rankings. He had originally committed to Alabama, but then flipped to USC to stay closer to home.
Town graduated early and spent the spring of 2015 at USC but then decided to transfer just a few weeks into camp in the fall. He quickly committed to Arkansas and started school right away but he was several weeks behind the rest of the QBs when he got to Fayetteville.
Bielema was critical of Town last December that he wasn’t up to speed with the Arkansas offense, saying he was behind on the language of “Hoganese.” But he’s been doing some catching up and Bielema said Monday that he’s ready to compete with the others.
“The hard spot Ricky found himself in last year was he wasn’t here (for the start of fall camp),” Bielema said. “He hadn’t learned our verbiage and he was always playing catch-up.”
Town is 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds and is considered to have all the tools, as well. He was invited to the Elite 11 camp back in high school and USC considered it a huge coup at the time when they signed him. But he hasn’t played a down since his high school season in 2014 and no one is really sure what to expect.
“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,” Enos said. “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.”
Ty Storey, another four-star recruit
Storey, like the Allens, is an Arkansas schoolboy legend. He was just behind Town in the 2015 247Sports composite rankings. He’s 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds and everyone is curious to see what he can bring to the table in 2016.
“He enrolled early and got in last January. Ty is a guy that’s off the charts with his football intelligence. I mean off the charts,” Enos said. “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.”
Cole Kelley, a big man in the 2016 recruiting class
The Razorbacks were thrilled to ink Kelley, a strapping 6-foot-7, 260-pounder from Lafayette, La. He threw for 3,203 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior at Tuerlings Catholic.
It’s highly unlikely that Kelley’s presence will impact the 2016 quarterback race in the fall, but he’s someone the Razorbacks are counting on for the future.
So who wins the job?
The grooming process has gone on for three years, so this is Austin Allen’s job to win.
“I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time,” Allen said after his first practice Monday. “It’s nice being out there, working with everyone at a nice pace, getting a lot done. I’ve had the luxury of seeing what we can do with this offense after watching Brandon last year. I’m excited for my shot. But I also know the other guys feel the same way.”
Brandon Allen and Enos proved to be a fantastic combination last year. It could be more of the same this year, just with another Allen. Still, the competition will go on. That’s a talented group of quarterbacks, all of whom can win with all these weapons on offense.
“I walk past that quarterbacks room and I just smile,” Bielema said. “It’s really nice what’s going on in there.”
And how soon will he win it?
If Austin Allen plays well all spring, the job is going to be his. There’s no guarantee that happens, of course, but it’s unlikely that he’ll fall apart over 15 practices. This is his time, and he’s prepared well for it the last three years. He looked good Tuesday, making good throws and keeping everyone organized as the first day of installing the offense got done.
Bielema could name a starter at the spring game on April 23, but if he doesn’t he’s not at all worried about it.
“If we don’t have (a starter) coming out of the spring game, I’ll be alright,” Bielema said. “We can let the chips fall as they will.”
Expect Allen to rake in all those chips come September.