Why Arkansas’ hour-long turn in ESPN’s college QB series could have been so much better

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Tyler Wilson - Spring Practice
This is a typical setting for Arkansas’ starting quarterback. In a recent behind-the-scenes show, ESPN fumbled a chance to show more.

The premise of ESPN’s “Depth Chart'” as an hour-long glimpse inside the lives of Arkansas football players struck me as far-fetched from the get-go. When it comes to media availability, Razorback football likely has the tightest restrictions of any program in the state and the walls have only shot up higher this season. Look, for instance, at information flow in the immediate aftermath of Knile Davis’ devastating ankle injury during an August practice. By far the most important news that afternoon was Davis’ injury – which left him screaming and requiring a cart to drive him off the field – yet the UA prohibited teammates from talking about Davis afterward. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee began post-practice comments by informing media only Arkansas’ head coach could discuss injuries, and Bobby Petrino was not scheduled to speak that day.

I absolutely understand elite college footballl programs’ desire to control the when and how news about them is released. What I was less clear about was how that desire would jive with a team of ESPN cameramen and producers trying to document the on and off-field lives of Arkansas’ quarterbacks in the week leading up to the Auburn game. “This position is so closely scrutinized that we created this series to draw back the curtain and reallly show fans what it takes to play quarterback in one of America’s top college programs,” said Vinnie Malhotra, excutive producer of ESPN Content Development, in a press release before the four-part “Depth Chart” series started airing in early October.

So it was with great interest that I watched Arkansas’ episode, which aired last week. By the time I was through, I felt like I had watched the most beautiful sports infomercial ever.

Visually, the piece is stunning. The cameras’ cutting-edge clarity, coupled with gorgeous lighting, give some of the scenes an other-wordly effect. Everyday, ho-hum sights from my UA college days – Fayetteville’s square, sorority row, the pre-game pep rally at the campus’ amphitheater – transform into something out of Lord of Rings under the spell of these magical cameras.

The game footage is fairly awesome. Everybody knows SEC football’s best athletes are incredibly explosive, but nothing hammers that point home like this show’s gametime footage of Joe Adams tearing around the corner and hurdling bodies or a blitzing Auburn defender looking more missile than man while bearing down on Tyler Wilson.

Where the show’s creators drop the ball isn’t in the show’s execution but in conceiving something that would better educate viewers. That is, the piece comes off more as a slick marketing tool for Razorback football than a documentary trying to give anything resembling an “authentic look” at the stressful lives of Arkansas’ quarterbacks. In a telephone interview before the series began, Malhotra, the show’s producer, said his team was using its nearly all-access priveleges to gather plenty of footage to tell the quarterback’s story.

Instead, the viewer gets nearly as much talk from quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee as the team’s quarterbacks combined. I don’t blame McGee at all for using the national platform to promote his program, but I think ESPN could emphasized other angles if they were truly interested in crafting an engaging narrative. Instead of airing footage of Wilson and McGee going through the motions with media folk and spouting cliches (material that has since been published or aired anyway), why not seek something new by asking Wilson about his personal life? For instance, how much do others ask him about stepping into Ryan Mallett’s  shoes and in what ways does he feel like he differs from Arkansas’ outspoken former starting QB? He has a crazy busy life, so I would hope he has a social life to help vent some. Wilson is the big man on campus and the only contact he is shown having with regular students is handing them pizza boxes and exchanging conversations of no more than five sentences. You can’t tell me this guy doens’t have or could have a girlfriend(s). Why so hesitant to ask this stuff, ESPN?

Then there’s the backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell. We briefly get a glimpse into his life outside football when it shows him relaxing on the weekend by playing basketballl at a local gym. He’s apparently a great in basketball too, so why not explore that a little? Do Razorback fans who play against him in pickup games play lax defense to reduce his chances of injury? Has he been warned against playing hard in basketball by his coaches?

In ESPN’s defense, this was the only “Depth Chart” filmed in season. The three previous episodes focused on other programs’ summer practices, and it is possible the players’ schedules were more relaxed. Plus, Bobby Petrino and Garrick McGee are the type of coaches who seem very business-minded about their crafts and tend to keep personal matters close to vest. Naturallly, their personalities rub off on their players.
All in all, Arkansas’ turn in the “Depth Chart” spotlight is certainly worth a look. Expect lush scenery and lots of well-lit cheerleaders. Also, plenty of game film review, a few seconds of Tyler Wilson taking notes in business class and a world record set for close-up shots of Coach McGee’s forehead.

Just don’t expect much depth.

An earlier version of this post was first published in Sync magazine

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