Arkansas' Wilson earns respect with toughness
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Tyler Wilson couldn't help but joke about the beating he's endured this season.
"I've been on the bench for three years, so I need to get hit a little bit," he said.
The Arkansas quarterback has taken shot after shot from opposing defenses, from Alabama to Vanderbilt. Despite the hits, the first-year starter has thrown a school-record 176 passes without an interception. The streak is tied for the sixth-longest in Southeastern Conference history and dates to the second quarter against the Crimson Tide on Sept. 24.
It's a streak Wilson hopes to add to when the No. 8 Razorbacks (7-1, 3-1 SEC) host No. 10 South Carolina (7-1, 5-1) on Saturday.
Wilson has missed only one half of one game with concussion-like symptoms this season. Even then, against New Mexico, the junior picked himself up off the turf in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium and made his way to the sideline.
"It saddens me a little bit because he's not supposed to be getting hit," Arkansas guard Grant Cook said. "But he takes a shot and gets right back up and is like, 'Let's get on the ball. Let's go, let's go.' It provides a source of energy for the offense. He's not laying there like he's hurt or acting like something's wrong. He just pops back up and gets going."
Wilson has been hit in nearly every way imaginable this season. He's taken helmet-to-helmet blows, been sandwiched by two defenders at once and last week against the Commodores took a pair of numbing back-to-back shots to the gut.
The first came on a third-and-10 as the Razorbacks were driving late in the first half. Arkansas was behind 21-7 with less than 30 seconds left, and Wilson took the snap in an empty backfield. The lack of protection resulted in a clean shot from Commodores linebacker Chris Marve on Wilson, whose pass fell incomplete. His next pass on fourth down, however, found receiver Jarius Wright for a 30-yard gain as he took a hit from Vanderbilt safety Karl Butler.
Wilson made a slower-than-usual walk to the sideline afterward, returning after a timeout to throw a touchdown pass to Wright on the next play, bringing Arkansas to within 21-14 at halftime on its way to a 31-28 win.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier couldn't help but notice the beating Wilson took against the Commodores — and how he responded.
"Watching him against Vanderbilt, he stays in there and makes the throws," Spurrier said. "He got hit a bunch of times, a bunch of times so he's a tough kid. He plays with courage back there. He'll stay in the pocket and make the throws. I admire the way he plays."
Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said it's difficult for quarterbacks to show their toughness to teammates during practice. He said while running backs and linemen have the opportunity to do so during repetitive hitting drills, quarterbacks are often able only to do so during games — and by taking hits like Wilson has this season.
McGee, who played quarterback in college, also said there are times when he takes a hit into account before approaching Wilson on the sideline after an offensive series.
"There are times you get whacked and you need a minute before you calm yourself down before your coach comes up and gives you all kinds of coaching and all kinds of coaching points," McGee said. "I try to let him calm down and relax after he takes a shot before I make any corrections that we need to make."
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said the offensive line needs to improve its protection. He said while Wilson has held on to the ball too long at times, sometimes the quarterback simply has to wait as long as possible before throwing the ball — knowing the hit is coming.
"I think you see that throughout the country, that the quarterbacks are getting hit," Petrino said. "Tyler's really done a nice job of his toughness, his poise, holding onto the ball until the last second."
With every hit this season, the respect Wilson's teammates have for him has grown.
"Tyler's one of the toughest guys I know," Wright said. "I can honestly say that he takes licks week-in and week-out, and he stands up and throws the ball again. You can't say much more about that guy."
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.