Among the best quarterbacks in SEC history, Tyler Wilson’s trajectory to success may be unmatched.
Typically, guys good enough to twice earn first-team All-SEC honors and project as a high first-round draft pick are also good enough to play heavy minutes before their fourth season. Not so with Arkansas’ Wilson, who marinated large portions of three seasons, playing a total 13 games. Backing up Ryan Mallett, he learned former coach Bobby Petrino’s intricate offense inside and out.
With former starter Ryan Mallett’s departure, Wilson produced the best junior season in Arkansas history in 2011. Now, by building on last season, the 6-3, 220-pound senior has a serious shot at the strongest career finish among pure passers in SEC history [click on image below to magnify]:
*No dual-threat Tim Tebows or Cam Newtons in the graph above. Also, with the exception of Ryan Mallett, I only included NFL Draft first-rounders. So no Danny Wuerffel, David Greene or Andre Woodson. Players from new SEC members Mizzou and Texas A&M were treated as unwanted stepchildren to be left on the front porch.
The schedule, featuring home games against bruisers LSU and Alabama, sets up nicely. Wilson has looked sharper than ever in the off-season and in a season opening win in which he tallied the best QB rating among major conference players. The return of star running back Knile Davis has freed up the passing game even more.
There are, of course, concerns. On offense, the biggest questions center on the extent to which last year’s star receivers and head coach are replaceable. Can guys like Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Mekale McKay pick up some of the slack left by the departures of receivers Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright? Can offensive coordinator Paul Petrino develop schemes to get them open with the same consistency as his older brother did?
These are legit questions, but not ones the Razorbacks themselves appear to be asking. Davis, for instance, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that Petrino’s absence would have “zero impact” on the team’s success.
Ultimate success isn’t defined by winning 11, 12 or 13 games. It’s about beating the right opponents to put Arkansas in the national title game. In the foreseeable future, this is the most likely year for such an appearance. To reach the promised land, Wilson doesn’t have keep his team’s conference record unblemished. If Arkansas loses one SEC game, it could still find itself in the title game, as Alabama did last year.
If the cards fall right and Wilson leads Arkansas to its first SEC title, expect more than one small-town Arkansas mayor to declare a “Tyler Wilson Day” (as the mayor of Wilson’s hometown Greenwood did last fall). If Wilson follows up by delivering a national championship, this 23-year-old sports management major will be nigh deified.
If you doubt this, consider the speed limit on Ole Miss’ campus is 18 in honor of Archie Manning’s jersey number. And the Rebels only went 15-7 his last two seasons there.
Indeed, if Wilson stays healthy and improves on his junior season, he could become every bit as beloved in Arkansas as the Mannings are in Mississippi.
Heresy? Not quite.
Like Archie, he has deep roots to the same area where he plays college ball. Like Peyton, he’s a workout fiend and film room junkie. Like Eli, he stays unperturbed in the pocket even as it crumbles around him. Granted, Wilson didn’t play much until his junior year, but his steady leadership in the tumultuous aftermath of Petrino’s dismissal have earned him a measure of respect among fans rarely given to even the best four-year starters.
Former Arkansas quarterback Joe Ferguson, who played 18 years in the NFL, says Wilson still has a long way to go in developing his mental game to enter the same stratosphere as Peyton Manning, but he’s off to a good start: “He’s smart. He knows protections real well, which is big part of the quarterbacks’ job. He protects himself and when he does that he protects the team,” said Ferguson, also a former Arkansas quarterbacks coach. “He’s got all the talent that there is to play at the next level, for sure.”
This article originally published in Sync magazine, a central Arkansas publication.