photo by JOHN KELLY
Arkansas quarterback AJ Derby (11) hands off the ball to Alex Collins during the Sept. 24 game against Southern Mississippi at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium in Fayetteville. Derby took snaps after starting quarterback Brandon Allen was injured during a touchdown run. Derby is expected to get the starting job against Rutgers if Allen’s shoulder doesn’t completely heal.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ support for backup quarterback AJ Derby has been evident since he replaced injured starter Brandon Allen last Saturday.
One of the best examples was its explanation for Derby’s struggles handling shotgun snaps in the 24-3 win against Southern Miss.
Fourth-year starter Travis Swanson, who has seldom had a problem with quarterback-center exchanges throughout his career, took “100 percent” responsibility for the troubles after the game. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney wouldn’t let Swanson shoulder the blame alone, either, saying it was his fault for not having Derby prepared for the velocity of Swanson’s snaps.
“I’ll take the blame for that,” Chaney said. “I was unaware of the differences and the level of the snap from the No. 2 center to Travis. I didn’t really have AJ ready to go.”
The response isn’t unusual from a team captain and offensive coordinator. The rest of the Razorbacks have shown similar support, too, as they prepare for the realistic possibility that Allen won’t play at Rutgers because of a shoulder injury.
Coach Bret Bielema has not publicly ruled Allen out, saying Monday his availability depends on how quickly the shoulder heals. But it’s clear players and coaches have rallied around Derby as they prepare for the road trip to Piscataway, N.J.
“It’s next man in,” Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said after Tuesday’s practice, which was held inside the Walker Pavilion. “We’re ready for AJ to come in and pick up where Brandon left off. We are going to do everything we can to try to support him and make him feel as comfortable as we can out there on the field.”
Derby’s debut wasn’t impressive statistically. He completed 4 of 6 passes for 36 yards in relief of Allen against Southern Miss, spending most of his time on the field handing the ball to running backs Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Kiero Small.
The conservative approach produced Arkansas’ lowest single-game passing total since 2006, when the Hogs had 62 yards in a 31-26 loss to LSU. But it was more than enough to help the Razorbacks grind their way to a victory in Derby’s first game.
Chaney said Derby’s execution in the offense was an important part of the win.
“I think AJ’s got a wonderful feel for the game of football,” Chaney said. “He gets it. He understands if there are 10 guys over here and one guy over there, let’s run over there. He’s got some common sense about him when it comes to playing football and he’s really improved his throwing motion to be able to throw the ball more accurately than he ever has. I’m happy for him because he’s worked really hard.”
Bielema didn’t recruit Derby as a quarterback out of high school when he was coaching Wisconsin. Instead, the Badgers saw him as a linebacker or tight end.
But Bielema — who played at Iowa with Derby’s father — said he has plenty of confidence that the Iowa City native can make plays with his arm now.
“I think a quarterback, obviously, a lot goes into how well you throw the football,” Bielema said. “But a lot goes into how well you can read defenses. How well you can read coverages. Make the right decisions. I think AJ’s personality, he’s got a little bit of that confidence, swagger. The kids like him and are engaged with him.
“But, obviously, he believes he’s a quarterback, which, to me, is everything.”
Derby’s teammates believe it, too, after working with him since the spring.
Derby — who went to Iowa but transferred after being moved to linebacker late in the 2011 season — walked on at Arkansas after playing one season at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He spent spring practice third on the depth chart and moved up to No. 2 after Brandon Mitchell transferred to North Carolina State.
“He’s a good quarterback,” Small said last Saturday. “He makes all the checks and things in practice. The same ones BA does. I knew that he had a grip on the game plan and things of that sort. Just getting his nerves, first time in there for a long period of time, so just helping him with his nerves and things.
“He did a pretty good job of leading this team (Saturday).”
Chaney said the biggest key was simply getting Derby to calm down after working his way through a few series in the first half.
He showed more confidence after halftime, completing two passes on a drive that ended with Jonathan Williams’ touchdown run. Williams said Derby has shown the same control in practice as Arkansas’ preparation for Rutgers began Tuesday.
“Just like every week,” Williams said when asked how Derby is preparing for a potential start. “Before he was a starter he came out and worked hard every day at practice and took the field as if he was a starter and it hasn’t changed.”
Derby and the rest of the quarterbacks have been placed off limits for interviews this week. But the junior said after Saturday’s game the support from coaches and players “made the adjustment” from backup to starter easy against Southern Miss.
It’s clear the Razorbacks have continued to rally around him this week as well.
“I think he handled (Saturday) pretty well and I know he’s taking this week serious,” Arkansas receiver Julian Horton said. “Very serious because (it’s) his first start probably - his first start – and just to get prepared for it. He’s getting ready for it.”