By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — Former Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett can throw the football. No one is doubting it.
His 7,496 yards and 62 touchdowns in two seasons in Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s offense is proof he can complete passes. But when Mallett arrives at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Thursday, kicking off four intense days for the pro football hopeful, it’s clear NFL personnel will be more interested in something else.
"The biggest thing is he needs to prove the off-the-field character concerns are put to rest," said Wes Bunting, who is the director of college scouting for the National Football Post. "It’s not even about his workout. It’s more about his interviews. They are going to be most important for Ryan Mallett."
The 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, which begins today, gives Mallett and three other Razorbacks (tight end D.J. Williams and offensive linemen DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez) an opportunity to wow teams on the way to April’s NFL Draft. All four players are determined to make an impression, although Mallett’s week is shaping up to be a critical one.
The quarterback’s stock, according to media outlets and draft prognosticators, has taken a hit before he has even worked out for teams. Some of the concerns regard on-the-field issues (size, athleticism and decision-making). But off-the-field questions are being raised as well and appear to be the biggest threat to Mallett’s first round hopes.
"There’s a lot of things he’s going to have to answer," ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen said. "And trust me, these teams leave no stone unturned."
Mallett will get an opportunity to meet individually with teams during 15-minute interview sessions that will span from Thursday through Saturday.
J.R. Carroll, one of Mallett’s representatives for the NFL draft, said Monday his client is looking forward to the opportunity to set the record straight on any topic.
"I think it’s very important," Carroll said. "I think that it’s really the first opportunity that the teams have an opportunity to sit down with Ryan and really find out who Ryan the person is. I think once they do that they’ll be extremely pleasantly surprise."
It’s not clear what Mallett will be asked during interviews. Or how he’ll respond. But there’s no doubt recent reports alluding to off-the-field concerns will be discussed by most, if not all, who speak to Mallett.
Earlier this week, Rob Rang of CBSSports.com wrote Mallett will be asked by teams regarding speculation about "so-called lack of leadership and reports of illegal drug use."
Tony Softli, a former NFL executive who now works for 101espn.com in St. Louis, hinted at even more Tuesday.
"Heavy rumors of drug use and possible addiction kept him from coming out for the 2010 draft," Softli wrote.
Carroll said via text message Tuesday night that report is "completely false," adding Mallett returned to Arkansas for personal reasons ("he had unfinished business for the state") and professional ones ("he was told by numerous advisers that had NFL connections that only having 13 games on film with a completion percentage below 60 percent is not how he wanted to enter the draft").
But Mortensen said it’s a line of questioning Mallett should expect when he meets with NFL teams.
"Ryan is going to sit down in these interviews and he is going to get peppered pretty hard on all the off-the-field information, speculation, rumors, true or false," Mortensen said. "He’s going to get confronted with them."
Mallett — who did consider the draft before returning to school for his junior season in 2010 — was not available for comment leading up to the NFL Combine.
Carroll said the quarterback is prepared to respond and believes he’ll make an impression on NFL personnel.
"He’s looking very forward to it for the simple fact that he’s human and he sees what people are saying about him," Carroll said. "And he also sees that no one person has come out and said anything negative toward Ryan.
"It’s only individuals that want to use unnamed sources and hide behind other people. So it feels like Ryan is having to defend himself against ghosts."
Mortensen said Mallett’s truthfulness, whether he has done anything in the past or not, will be important during the interview process with NFL teams. But he added if Mallett does admit to past issues, it could both help him and hurt him because of the position he plays.
"Ryan is in a different category because he’s a quarterback," Mortensen said. "Quarterbacks are held to a different standard of conduct intangibly on and off the field. Ryan does fall under a different category than your average linebacker, defensive back, wide receiver, running back, you name it, because he is a quarterback."
Mallett had one publicized off-the-field incident while at Arkansas when he was arrested on a public intoxication charge in the spring of 2009.
But Carroll said his Mallett hasn’t hidden from it. He also pointed to Mallett’s results in Arkansas’ drug testing program during his career.
"The only objective documentation that anybody can point to is the random testing that they do at the U of A," Carroll said. "And Ryan has never failed a drug test since he has been on campus for three solid years."
Carroll said Mallett plans to throw the football in front of NFL personnel this week, but will hold off on all the other testing until his Arkansas pro day next month. It’s no surprise. His goal is to concentrate on the interviews.
In the end, what Mallett does on the field will play a big role in where he’s selected in next April’s NFL Draft. But it has become clear other items will matter, too, and are waiting for him in Indianapolis as the NFL Combine begins.
"I think it’s a pretty important week," Mortensen said. "And it’s not important in terms of how Ryan Mallett throws the football."