Published November 20, 2014
Tyler Wilson had no reservations about stepping into Bobby Petrino's role.
The Arkansas quarterback made a point to fill any leadership void left in the wake of Petrino's firing, both emotionally and on the field.
Wilson's results, 31-of-41 passing for 467 yards and three touchdowns while leading the Red to a 65-0 win Saturday over the White, bode well for the future of a Razorbacks team still without a head coach.
The performance also left no doubt that the near future at Arkansas is in good hands with both Wilson and running back Knile Davis.
The duo led the Razorbacks onto the field before the scrimmage, where they were greeted by a record crowd of 45,250 — besting last season's previous best of 42,000.
"(Wilson) is the face of the program in my mind," Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. "Tyler and Knile, guys like that, they've proven it so they deserve it."
More than anything Wilson did on the field, however, it was his pregame show of leadership that set the tone — one he hopes to carry into the future.
As Wilson and his teammates were going through warm-ups prior to the scrimmage, last season's first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection was approached by strength and conditioning coach Jason Veltkamp.
"Hey, you've got the team after he kicks it here," Veltkamp said.
Veltkamp was referring to the final pregame speech on the field to the entire team, one that Petrino had done for the previous four seasons following kicker Zack Hocker's usual field goal attempts.
Petrino was nowhere near the scrimmage Saturday following his April 10 firing after the revelation that he had hired his mistress to a position in the football program and paid her $20,000. Wilson, however, was — making it clear who the leader was while standing only steps away from and encouraging Hocker during his attempts and when calling the Razorbacks together following the kicker's final field goal.
An animated Wilson then removed his helmet and spoke to his teammates before sending them to the locker room to complete their preparation — just as Petrino used to.
"That's a time where usually the head football coach speaks to us and talks to us going into the locker room," Wilson said. "I just said, 'Hey, we're all out here together.'
"... What's great about this program is it breeds leadership."
Once the action started, Wilson once again took charge.
He led the Red squad, made up of Arkansas' first-teamers, on a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the scrimmage — capping with a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Gragg.
The fun had just started at that point for Wilson, who was simply trying to earn the starting job last spring. He did that through his offseason and preseason work last year, leading Arkansas to a 11-2 record and top-5 finish — including a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State.
The Razorbacks entered this spring with hopes of improving on last season's performance, but those thoughts were put on hold following Petrino's motorcycle crash on April 1. It was revealed less than a week later that the 51-year-old Petrino was riding with 25-year-old football staffer Jessica Dorrell at the time of the crash — a fact Petrino failed to tell athletic director Jeff Long and the public when he returned to the job.
Petrino was initially put on paid leave before Long fired him April 10 for failing to reveal his conflict of interest with Dorrell, who resigned last week.
Throughout all of the daily Petrino soap opera, spring practice continued for the Razorbacks. Wilson had insisted Petrino's firing hadn't impacted Arkansas' work this spring, and he appeared correct Saturday.
Wilson was 26-of-34 passing in the first half, connecting with Gragg for a 60-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.
While his performance stood out to those in attendance, it was the crowd and show of support that made an impact on the Razorbacks.
Long was also in attendance Saturday and said he expects to conclude his search for a new coach in a matter of "days, not weeks." He also was struck by the record crowd, which came out despite the uncertainty that's followed Petrino's firing.
"I got a little bit of chills down my spine when they announced it was going to be over 45,000," Long said. "I think it sent a strong message that our fans really did come out to support the young men in the program. That's what it's really about."
On the field, Davis caused a bit of a stir early when he stayed on the field for the scrimmage's first play. The running back, who missed all of last season with an ankle injury, hasn't taken part in any contact since returning to practice.
Davis only served as a decoy receiver on the play, however, before returning to the sidelines.
His teammates, meanwhile, took their turns in the spotlight along with Wilson.
Cobi Hamilton led the Red with 11 catches for 156 yards, while Gragg finished with 9 for 130. Sophomore Marquel Wade added 6 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown.
Ronnie Wingo led both teams with 88 yards rushing on 14 carries, finishing with 3 touchdowns.
All in all, turmoil or not, Wilson said the spring was a success for both himself and the rest of the Razorbacks — who have their sights set on both SEC and national championships next season. He also said the size of Saturday's crowd would provide motivation going forward.
"It's encouraging and makes me want to come to work every single day, knowing that we've got that kind of support," Wilson said. "And knowing that I'm not going to let this thing go down. We've got all the ability to be very successful here, and that kind of support shows it."