LITTLE ROCK — Two words in the middle of a four-sentence release explain why four Arkansas football players are moving on.
The departure of Brandon Mitchell, Keante Minor, Austin Flynn, and Defonta Lowe will be “mutually beneficial,” head coach Bret Bielema said. In other words, both my football team and the players will be better off. Issued in connection with the current situation, his “my-way-or-the-highway” position is long term.
During the last football season, hardly a week went by without a question about the leadership of interim coach John L. Smith. A nice guy, Smith seemed most comfortable deferring to quarterback Tyler Wilson. With Bielema, there is no question the former Wisconsin coach is calling the shots — all of them.
Neither Flynn nor Lowe participated in spring practice so their exit was no surprise. Moved from wide receiver to running back, Minor did not play in the first half of the Red-White game when the Razorbacks’ first two units were on the field. With Alex Collins and other freshmen running backs en route, Minor got the message.
Even Mitchell’s departure is not a shock. Mitchell saw himself as a quarterback, maybe even in the NFL. Bielema saw Mitchell as a very good athlete with one year of eligibility whose best chance to get on the field was to change positions.
During the conversation between coach and player, the guess is that Mitchell was adamant about being a quarterback and that Bielema made it clear Brandon Allen was No. 1 at that position and that the competition was over. A smart kid, Mitchell had to know that was the case after working with the second unit throughout spring practice.
In his public opportunities at quarterback, Mitchell made some athletic plays, the sort that tease the possibilities. An occasional athletic play does not a quarterback make. Good decisions are more a part of the position than improvisation.
At 6-foot-4 with good hands, Mitchell could have competed for playing time at receiver. But, he was not a surefire starter considering the presence of Javonte Herndon, Mekale McKay, Demetrius Wilson, Keon Hatcher and others, and the fact that Arkansas’ offense will often include only two receivers.
The release noted that Mitchell is on track to graduate in the summer and that he can make use of the NCAA graduate transfer provision to play this fall. Ironically, Bielema has been on the receiving end of a quarterback transferring with degree in hand.
Russell Wilson leaving North Carolina State for Wisconsin and Mitchell departing Arkansas for parts unknown are apples and oranges — a proven commodity vs. a proven athlete. Wilson attempted 1,180 passes and accounted for 93 touchdowns in his three years at NC State; Mitchell’s 43 passes produced three touchdowns at Arkansas.
Wilson chose Wisconsin over Auburn, although he was not promised the starting job at Madison. “But obviously I told him as a guy with one year of eligibility, I’m not bringing you in with the intention of seeing how you sit on the bench,” Bielema said the day after Wilson announced his decision.
The question is whether a coach at a major school is willing to bring in Mitchell and give him only a month of fall practice to prove he is a quarterback.
Meanwhile, there is a theory that Mitchell’s decision increases the pressure on Allen. A homegrown product and the son of a 15-year assistant coach at Arkansas, Allen was under the microscope before he arrived on campus. His emergence as No. 1 for 2013 had already tightened the screws to the max.
The real pressure is to find a true No. 2. A.J. Derby, who arrived for spring practice after a season at Iowa and a season in junior college, was No. 3 in the spring and will begin fall ahead of Allen’s little brother, Austin, another freshman, Damon Mitchell, and others.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.