By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson knows Ryan Mallett will be leaving the Razorbacks.
It could come after the record-setting junior leads Arkansas (10-2) into its first BCS game against Ohio State (11-1) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4. It might not be until after 2011 season, if Mallett does the unexpected and turns down the NFL Draft to return to Arkansas for his senior season.
Mallett has not publicly revealed his plans. But that doesn’t matter to Wilson. The sophomore said he’ll be prepared whenever the Razorbacks’ starting job is up for grabs.
"I think my opportunity is awaiting me," Wilson said. "And I’m not going to miss the chance to capitalize on it."
While Mallett and the Razorbacks are putting the finishing touches on the 2010 season, Wilson and the rest of Arkansas’ backup quarterbacks are beginning to look toward the future.
Common sense says Mallett is headed for the draft. He has rewritten Arkansas’ passing records in his two years as a starter and is projected as a first-round pick if he left school early. If he follows through, Arkansas expects Bobby Petrino’s high-powered offense to continue to run smoothly.
So Wilson, redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell and freshman Jacoby Walker see bowl practices as much more than just a chance to prepare for the Buckeyes. It’s also an opportunity to make an impression on the Razorbacks just in case Arkansas does begin life without Mallett after the Sugar Bowl.
"It’s super important," Wilson said. "It’s another spring practice for us, really, to refine some skills, gain more knowledge, get some other guys confident in us, knowing we’re able to lead the ship too."
But it’s safe to say Wilson already has earned the trust of his teammates after his performance in a reserve role.
After Mallett suffered a concussion at Auburn, Wilson stepped in and threw for 332 yards with four touchdowns in Arkansas’ 65-43 loss. Wilson also filled in for an injured Mallett once again a week later, helping the Razorbacks wrap up a win against Ole Miss with a solid effort in the fourth quarter.
Wilson has completed 34 of 51 for 453 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions this season.
"His confidence level is as high as it’s ever been," Petrino said last week. "He really understands what we’re doing."
But it’s safe to say Mitchell and Walker, who is finally able to practice this month after sitting out the entire season because of a knee injury he suffered during the spring game last April, won’t plan to hand him the starting job.
Mitchell — who redshirted in 2009 — said it has been challenging watching Arkansas from the sidelines all season.
He has attempted three passes, completing one, for 16 yards in three appearances. But the year hasn’t been a waste.
"I developed a lot even though I haven’t played a lot," said Mitchell, who has helped the Razorbacks on special teams the final two games. "I get the best of both worlds. I get to see the opposing team defense and I get to see our defense on scout team. So I’m seeing different defensive structure and how to approach them and thing like that."
Mitchell already has impressed the Arkansas coaching staff with his ability to run the football. It’s an element neither Mallett or Wilson have been able to provide the offense.
But the Razorbacks said Mitchell needs further development as a passer. He is making strides in that regard.
"Brandon is throwing the ball about as well as we’ve seen him throw it," Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said Monday. "He really did benefit from being around this season, preparing to play each and every week.
"I expect him to have a really big spring for us."
So does Petrino, who said Mitchell’s accuracy on third down will be key to his development. And the quarterback race.
"If he can get to that, it will be great competition in the spring," Petrino said.
All of the quarterbacks have gotten their share of practice time and scrimmage work the past couple of weeks.
Wilson left an impression on teammates last Saturday, when he took his turn operating the first-team offense during a close scrimmage. Mitchell took advantage of his opportunities as well, running the second-team offense during the scrimmage.
Arkansas’ quarterbacks understand how important Mallett has been to the Hogs’ success the past two seasons. It’s safe to say they’re looking forward to the end of his career, though.
It means the competition for his successor begins.
"As soon as Ryan is gone, me and Tyler, we tease each other about it," Mitchell said. "I told him to bring his helmet to practice every day because it’s going to be a battle."