The 2011 Sugar Bowl is an NFL audition for Arkansas junior quarterback Ryan Mallett.
Already expected to be, at worst, the third or fourth quarterback taken off the board come draft day, Mallett could solidify his first-round aspirations with a strong performance at the Louisiana Superdome against Ohio State on Tuesday night.
That is, if he actually decides to forgo his senior season in Fayetteville. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 15.
“That’s something I’ll sit down with my parents and talk about after the season,” Mallett told reporters last week. “Right now I’m focused on the Sugar Bowl.”
And Mallett had better be, because in addition to that of Ohio State defenders, the focus of eager NFL scouts will be keenly directed on him.
Not that the 6’6”, 240-pound Mallett has any issues passing the eye test.
Mallett is as much a physical specimen as any quarterback in the 2011 draft class. His arm strength, which enables him to make any throw on the field, is unrivaled. And he is known to have a terrific demeanor, on and off the field, to complement his notable work ethic.
Still, there are questions surrounding Mallett, who in 2010 became the fourth quarterback in SEC history to throw for more than 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
NFL evaluators have concerns about his footwork, periods of inconsistency, ability to progress through reads, and effectiveness throwing on the run.
But Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino insists Mallett has filled in such gaps in his game.
"He's really matured as far as his technique, his fundamentals and his footwork. His balance and his delivery have gotten better and better," Petrino told reporters in New Orleans recently. "I actually had him for a year and half before he played a game. That's a lot of time to spend and work on technique and fundamentals. He understands the game really, really well—both sides of the ball, offense and defense.”
But maturity is a different matter off the field, where Mallett has faced some scrutiny regarding the strength of his character.
Though mainly overblown, much has been made about the manner in which Mallett handled his transfer from Michigan, where he said he felt “forced out” by the spread scheme of then-incoming coach Rod Rodriguez.
Then, in 2009, prior to his first season as a starter at Arkansas, Mallett pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of public intoxication.
But each of these issues will be thoroughly addressed when Mallett, assuming he decides to enter the draft, is interviewed by NFL officials during next month’s scouting combine.
For now, all that matters is the performance on the field Tuesday night. And it could be a make-or-break situation.
If Mallett can affirm his coach’s assessment, there’s no reason why he can’t be the first quarterback taken behind Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who many consider to be the consensus No. 1 pick.
In four quarters, Mallett can erase a good deal of the questions professional scouts have about his shortcomings and areas of improvement. The difference between a good and bad outing against the Buckeyes will not only determine in which round he will get drafted, but how much he is paid by an NFL team.
Money is at stake here, too.
Which is why if Mallett wilts in the Sugar Bowl, he may want to consider cutting his losses and returning for his senior season.