FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Ryan Mallett stood several yards behind the line of scrimmage, safely away from the action. He clapped his hands after a nice play and raised both arms following a touchdown. At one point, he took a quick break to throw with a teammate — short tosses of about 15 yards.
A couple months ago, Mallett broke his foot and he was limited during spring practice. But the 6-foot-7 quarterback still commanded plenty of attention, just like he will this fall around the Southeastern Conference. He is, after all, the man being counted on to lead Arkansas to its first SEC title and maybe more than that.
Arkansas has never won the SEC in football, but the Hogs will probably be a chic underdog pick next season. If they live up to those ambitious hopes, Mallett could find himself in the middle of the Heisman Trophy discussion.
"We set our expectations high every year, and when we don't reach our goals, we're not going to be happy about getting close to it," Mallett said. "We want to reach our goals and go above it."
This is Mallett's third spring practice at Arkansas, but he's only played for the Razorbacks for one season. That was all the time he needed to turn the Hogs' offense into one of the SEC's best. After sitting out 2008 following his transfer from Michigan, Mallett threw for 3,624 yards last season, with 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He edged Florida's Tim Tebow for the conference lead in total offense.
Mallett, who is from Texarkana, Ark., considered jumping into the NFL draft — after three seasons in college, he was eligible — but decided to come back for at least one more year as a Razorback. Arkansas has nine returning starters on offense and a great chance to improve on last season's 8-5 record.
Mallett showed up at spring practice, day after day, encouraging teammates and keeping his mind sharp while his body healed.
"He's a gym rat," coach Bobby Petrino said. "He loves sports, he loves being out there on the field. It's not hard for him to get out there and watch the front, watch the coverage, concentrate, see what's happening."
In two seasons under Petrino, Arkansas has undergone a complete makeover. He took over the Razorbacks after his Atlanta Falcons tenure fell apart following Michael Vick's suspension, just as Mallett was facing some uncertainty of his own. He played a decent amount as a freshman at Michigan, but Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr was retiring, and Mallett decided to return to his home state.
The Razorbacks have seldom been known for their quarterbacks — it was Arkansas, after all, that helped popularize the wildcat formation in which the ball can be snapped directly to a running back. Those days ended when Petrino arrived, and fans waited eagerly while Mallett sat out his required season.
Mallett's 2009 campaign began inauspiciously when he was arrested in March on a public intoxication charge. That annoyed Petrino, who started Mallett in the season opener but also played Tyler Wilson.
In the next game, against Georgia, Mallett played a full four quarters and he became the first Razorback to throw for more than 400 yards in a game. He went on to set or tie single-season school records for yards passing, completions, pass attempts and touchdown throws.
Mallett then passed up a shot at the NFL and it's clear the confident quarterback is earning his coach's respect. Even this spring, when he couldn't do much in practice, Mallett stayed alert and involved.
"I think Ryan's done an excellent job all spring. I think he's helped the other quarterbacks," Petrino said. "I'm impressed when I turn around and they're talking about the previous play. They're talking about what the look was, what the blitz was, if the quarterback didn't make the right call at the line of scrimmage, they're already discussing it. I think Ryan, mentally, has gotten a lot out of spring ball."
Although Mallett at times appeared weary last season of all the talk about his stats and his NFL prospects, he long ago embraced his role as a team leader.
"He could easily be in the training room," wide receiver Greg Childs said. "He's trying to show everyone that he's still here."
And he's no less dedicated behind the scenes.
"He's been at every meeting. He's learning right there with everybody else," Wilson said. "I think he's going to be a better quarterback when he gets back."
There is room for improvement. Mallett didn't throw many interceptions last season, but he struggled against top defenses. He went 12 of 35 against Alabama, 12 of 27 against Florida and 12 of 34 against Mississippi. Even in the Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina, Mallett went 15 of 36, the type of performance that can destroy a Heisman campaign.
Mallett is expected to heal in plenty of time for the season and he should have plenty of options. Receivers Childs, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams combined for 118 catches for 2,143 yards last season, and tight end D.J. Williams also returns.
The Razorbacks could improve their running game a bit after ranking 10th in the SEC, and they'll certainly want to shore up a defense that allowed a league-worst 401 yards a game. But Arkansas has a reasonably favorable schedule in 2010, playing Alabama and LSU at home — and that's one more reason the Razorbacks feel this could be their year to make a run.
With a smarter, more experienced Mallett taking the snaps, these Hogs are ready to aim for new heights.
"We've got some players here," Mallett said. "We love the high expectations."