By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson knew his opportunity would come eventually. It had to. Sooner or later, quarterback Ryan Mallett would be leaving Arkansas to begin his professional football career.
So it’s hard to say Wilson was surprised when Mallett announced he was turning pro after his junior season last month. The Razorbacks had all but anticipated Mallett’s departure after his second season as a starter in Bobby Petrino’s offense. But now that it’s official, Wilson said Friday he’s ready to battle for the starting spot.
"I know I probably will have the shot of being the guy," Wilson said. "I have got to take every practice like it’s really important and take care of business."
Wilson met with the media as Arkansas’ first-team quarterback for the first time Friday afternoon.
The junior, barring injury or other unforeseen setback, is expected to take the first snaps when Arkansas kicks off spring practices on March 15. But it doesn’t mean he’s being penciled in as Arkansas’ starter for the 2011 season opener. That’s something he’ll have to earn over sophomore Brandon Mitchell and redshirt freshman Jacoby Walker.
There’s no denying the former Greenwood High standout has a leg up on the competition because of the experience he has gained in a backup role the past two years. The most notable came in the 65-43 loss at Auburn, when he stepped off the bench and threw for 332 yards and four touchdowns after Mallett left the game with a head injury.
It was an effort that gave teammates confidence in the future with Wilson under center. That’s not all.
"He’s a guy I have a lot of confidence in," Petrino said during Friday’s press conference, which was the first time he has met with the media since the Sugar Bowl. "Tyler can really throw the football and has shown he knows how to move a football team and get in the end zone."
Wilson had an opportunity to run Arkansas’ offense last spring, when Mallett was sidelined by a foot injury. He and Mitchell handled the bulk of the reps, an opportunity both said helped them progress in the offense.
There’s no doubt there’s a different feel this spring, though. One of them will be starting next season.
"I have gotten some key game experience this last season so I am definitely more prepared probably coming into this spring than I was last," Wilson said. "I’m definitely more mature and I kind of know what to expect."
Mallett’s leadership was critical to Arkansas’ success last season, something Wilson said he and the rest of the quarterbacks want to continue this winter
So Wilson said he takes pride in leading Arkansas in the weight room, where he’s trying to bulk up to 220 pounds before the preseason. It’s also an opportunity to take control of the team on the field during offseason throwing drills, something others have noticed this month.
"I see Tyler running up and down the field with receivers, changing routes from whatever they were running," Arkansas defensive end Tenarius Wright said about voluntary work this winter. "Tyler is really taking it serious. All the quarterbacks and receivers are."
No matter who wins the starting job, Petrino said they’ll bring a new element to the offense next season.
All three quarterbacks are more mobile than Mallett, which that could lead to more options for Arkansas.
In fact, Petrino said it will be fun to see how the Arkansas offense "molds and changes" with a new leader under center. When asked if one would win the job or if there could be a two-quarterback system in place next season, Petrino said "they’ll determine that."
"Like all quarterbacks, they all have to show they can convert third downs," Petrino said. "Probably the biggest difference between high school and college is, on third downs those guys aren’t going to be wide open."
The competition for Arkansas’ starting job is open, however, after Mallett’s departure.
Wilson said he was at home when word Mallett had officially declared for the draft spread earlier this month. It wasn’t a big surprise. But welcome news.
"I sent him a text and wished him well," Wilson said. "I was excited about my future here at the university and knowing we have a lot coming back and the possibility of achieving great things in the upcoming season."
Petrino said defensive tackle Byran Jones will not be available for spring practice after undergoing ankle surgery after the Sugar Bowl. Jones, who missed time because of an ankle injury this season, was not available for the Sugar Bowl because of the nagging injury.
"Everything went real well and he’s already working extremely to get back on the field," Petrino said.
Petrino also said receiver Greg Childs — who suffered a last-season knee injury — isn’t expected to participate in spring practice while he continues rehabilitation. Running back Dennis Johnson should be full speed, however, after missing most of 2010 because of a bowel injury.
"He’s looking real good," Petrino said of Johnson, who took part in non-contact work during bowl practices. "He’s antsy. He wants to get out there and get going."
Former Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams and offensive tackle DeMarcus Love will wrap up their week in Mobile, Ala., when they play in the Senior Bowl today. The game, which will be held in Ladd-Peebles Stadium, kicks off at 3 p.m. and is being televised by the NFL Network.
It will be the final time both players will don Arkansas helmets, playing for the South squad coached by the Buffalo Bills staff. The game is the final piece of a week-long interview for the duo, who were scrutinized by NFL coaches, scouts and general managers all week.