Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photo
Tyler Wilson quarterbacked Arkansas to 11 victories last season and helped hold the team together this spring following the firing of coach Bobby Petrino.
Camp start: Aug. 2
Opener: Jacksonville State in Fayetteville (Sept. 1 on pay-per-view at 7 p.m.)
Fun fact: Although Arkansas has been known for its passing prowess in recent years, Razorbacks tailbacks Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo have rushed for a combined 3,794 yards and 29 touchdowns in their college careers.
Tuesday's preview: Auburn
Tyler Wilson developed a lot of leadership qualities last season in quarterbacking Arkansas to an 11-2 record, which matched the most single-season victories in Razorbacks history.
Then came the offseason.
After laboring in early January about whether to leave early for the National Football League, Wilson elected to hone his skills at the college level for one more season under coach Bobby Petrino. In early April, however, Petrino was fired for misleading university officials about an inappropriate relationship with a 25-year-old athletic department employee.
"This is my fifth year, and obviously I've had to make a number of grown-up decisions about my future, like staying at Arkansas for my senior season," Wilson said last week at SEC media days. "Following that, another big-time decision hits me, and that's whether to curl up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself or stand up and take it on the chest and lead and let these guys follow you. That kind of process was good for me, and it helps you grow up."
Wilson completed 277 of 438 passes for 3,638 yards last season with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions to become the first Arkansas quarterback ever to earn first-team All-SEC laurels, and his .629 career completion percentage is tops in school history. In wins over Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, he rallied the Hogs from 18 down against the Aggies, 17 down against the Rebels and 14 down against the Commodores.
Arkansas capped its 11-win season by dumping Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, but Wilson's most vivid memory yet may have been the night of April 10, when athletic director Jeff Long informed the team that Petrino was out.
"It was an interesting situation, and it was tough on a number of us," Wilson said. "Myself and [senior linebacker] Tenarious Wright stood up and kind of laid out our thoughts on how things should go in the future, and one thing I really stressed was that it had already happened and that there were two things you can control in life, and that's your attitude and your effort.
"I told them I would continue to have a tremendous attitude each and every day and that I would continue to give the best effort I could and that I would like you guys to follow me. Tenarious sent a real similar message. Our goals had not changed as a program."
Two weeks after Petrino's firing, Long hired Weber State coach and former Razorbacks assistant John L. Smith. Wilson responded to the chaos and transition by completing 101 of 146 passes for 1,600 yards with 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in the major scrimmages and Red-White spring game.
His Red-White numbers were 31-of-41 for 467 yards and two touchdowns.
"Having a guy like that is tremendous, without a doubt," Smith said of the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Wilson, who is from Greenwood, Ark. "He's such a positive guy, as are all of our guys to a degree."
Wilson is convinced that if such an awkward and embarrassing incident had to take place, occurring in the middle of spring practice was the best time. He reasoned that there were players waiting to see if the leaders would waver, and he said a core group of older players attacked the final practices and younger players followed.
Not lost in the awkwardness is that Paul Petrino, Bobby's younger bother, is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
"Obviously it was a tough time, because it was a family issue," Wilson said. "He came to work each and every day with a mindset of us being out to prove something, and I have to commend him on that. He didn't show a lot of emotion through that. He was a ball coach."
The Razorbacks led the SEC a year ago with 36.8 points a game and are loaded offensively with the return of Wilson, tailback Knile Davis -- who rushed for 1,322 yards in 2010 but missed last season with an ankle fracture -- receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg.
Wright and Alonzo Highsmith give Arkansas two quality linebackers, but the Razorbacks continue to lag behind West Division rivals Alabama and LSU on defense.
With this being an even-numbered year, the schedule is favorable because Arkansas gets to host the Crimson Tide and Tigers. It is possible the Razorbacks may start out slightly lower in the national polls than they would have with Bobby Petrino still in charge, but Wilson said counting out his team would be a mistake.
"You guys can say what you want, but I witnessed the best spring that I've had since I've been here," he said, "and with that I think we can have a better season. I was here during the five-win season my freshman year and the eight-win season during my redshirt freshman year, the 10-win season and the 11-win season.
"If you do the math, we're in good shape at the end of this season."