The last thing a coach wants is for a young quarterback to be forced to make his first start against a perennial powerhouse program.
That is exactly what the Arkansas Razorbacks' Brandon Allen had to do as a freshman against the No.1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, after starter Tyler Wilson got hurt the previous weekend in an overtime loss to the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.
Fans hoped Allen and the Hogs could cancel out the loss with a win over the defending national champions at home. Alas, it was foolish for anyone to think a freshman could lead Arkansas to an upset victory against the best team in the country, as they lost decisively, 52-0.
Coming into 2013, the verdict on Allen went both ways.
Though he impressed the staff throughout the spring and ultimately won the job, he was sub-par in his appearances last year. Against Alabama, he went 10-for-18 for 69 yards and two interceptions. In his one start and five total appearances, Allen completed just 42.9 percent of his passes for one touchdown and three interceptions.
Some had expectations that his steps forward during the offseason would translate into an improved product on the field. Others saw what he did last year and thought that he might not be the long-term answer to replace Wilson.
Those on Allen's side were correct, at least against the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns.
The 6'3", 220-pound sophomore displayed what made him the Natural State's No. 3 recruit and a 4-star prospect by Rivals.com in 2011. The Razorbacks established the run game early on–not a surprise for the run-savvy Bret Bielema–opening up the pass game for Allen, who took advantage of it.
Arkansas racked up 292 yards rushing behind Jonathan Williams (18 carries, 151 yards, TD) and true freshman Alex Collins (21 carries, 131 yards). After riding the two backs for the first seven plays of the game, the Ragin' Cajuns' defense began to creep up, and the Hogs went to the air.
Allen went 3-3 on the next four plays, capping off an 11-play, 75-yard opening drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Javontee Herndon. If had any nerves before the game, they all but disappeared.
He settled in nicely and finished the game an efficient 15-of-22 for 230 yards and three touchdowns, showing an improvement in many aspects of his game that points to a bright future.
Here you can see highlights from the win, along with Allen's scoring throws:
His accuracy was one thing that stood out. As mentioned, Allen was anything but accurate last year. The majority of those passes came against Alabama and the Warhawks.
A lot could be credited to his simply being unprepared. He had a year to learn as a redshirt in 2011, but no one expected Wilson to get hurt in the second game of the season. It left a wide-eyed Allen, who had never thrown a collegiate pass, to step in for the second half. He was noticeably uncomfortable, going 6-for-20 for 85 yards with a touchdown and a pick. He then had to face the best program in the nation in Alabama, where he struggled mightily as noted.
He simply was not ready for what happened—and neither were the coaches.
He worked tirelessly in the offseason to improve his accuracy, and it showed against Louisiana. Allen completed 68.2 percent of his throws. Those 15 completions weren't just a bunch of dump downs either. A look inside the numbers shows that.
Of his 15 completions, 53 percent (8-15) were over 10 yards, with six over 15 and four over 20, including a beautiful 49-yard touchdown to Herndon.
He was also much improved with his decision-making. Allen showed no signs that he was making just his second start, routinely recognizing pass coverages and going to the second and even third option when his main target was covered. He ultimately hit six different receivers on the day.
But the most impressive aspect of his game on display was his arm.
When your target starts getting further than 10 yards away, the more power you have to put behind the ball. And when you start talking about 20-plus yards, the precision required to place the ball in just the right spot is critical.
His touch on long passes is one his best attributes, as noted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's recruiting reporter Richard Davenport:
QB Brandon Allen showed great touch on the deep ball while at Fayetteville. Same with the 49 yard TD. Definitely one of his strengths.— Richard Davenport (@ArRecruitingGuy) August 31, 2013
Allen showed off his precision passing, squeezing numerous balls into tight spots where only his guy could get it. It also helped that his receivers didn't drop a lot of balls and founds holes in the coverage.
Bo Mattingly, host of Arkansas radio program Sports Talk With Bo, said that Bielema gave high praise for the sophomore's performance:
Bielema: I thought Brandon Allen was tremendous. ... He has that demeanor of a championship quarterback.— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) August 31, 2013
He has good size and a lively arm, and his decision-making and accuracy improved vastly during the offseason. His relationship and timing with his receiving core will only get better with each game. Defenses will have to continue to respect the running game if it remains as effective as it was last weekend, which gives Allen and the receivers more room to work with.
Allen gets two more games against lesser opponents (Samford and Southern Miss) to work on his game before his first true test at Rutgers. Arkansas' next game vs. Texas A&M will be the gauge as to how much he's improved.
He has all the potential to be the next great Arkansas quarterback. If Allen performs to his capability, the Hogs will be the sleeper in the SEC West.