FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas will open preseason camp with sophomore Brandon Allen entrenched as the team’s No. 1 quarterback.
It became obvious after a spring in which Allen took every significant snap with the starters. And even more clear when Allen was listed on top of the post-spring quarterback depth chart, prompting Brandon Mitchell to announce his plans to transfer to North Carolina State for his final season of college football.
But Mitchell’s departure left Arkansas facing other important questions about its quarterback depth chart as it prepares for the beginning of the Bret Bielema era. The most obvious: who is Allen’s backup now?
Walk-on A.J. Derby assumed the role for the summer after spending the spring with the third-team offense. He’s a relative unknown in Arkansas, but Derby will enter preseason camp as the Razorbacks’ second-team quarterback and will try to hold off incoming freshmen Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell for backup duties this fall.
So who is Derby? The Iowa City native began his college football career at his hometown school Iowa. It also happens to be the alma mater of Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who played for the Hawkeyes with Derby’s father, John.
He opened his redshirt freshman year at Iowa as the backup quarterback, but was moved to defense after serving a two-game suspension for an off-the-field incident in October. He transferred to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College to play in 2012 and, after Bielema arrived at Arkansas, decided to walk-on with the Razorbacks.
Derby didn’t get receive much notoriety during his first spring because of the quarterback battle between Allen and Mitchell. But he sat down for an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau last month. The conversation is below:
Q: Brandon Mitchell’s departure moved you up to second-team quarterback after the spring. How does it feel to move into that role after a few months on campus?
A: “It’s good. It means I’m taking steps in the right direction. Obviously I want to play. But I’m coming to work every day and just want to be ready when that opportunity comes.”
Q: You’ve been here for about six months now. How well have you adjusted?
A: “The biggest thing is just coming back to Division I (football). All the workouts and everything like that, just adjusting back to that lifestyle. Learning the offense was probably the easiest thing for me because the football aspect comes pretty easy to me. It’s just getting back into a team thing. It’s been good.”
Q: How was your experience playing at the junior college level last year?
A: “It was good and bad at the same time. It wasn’t what I wanted to get out of it, but I didn’t have to sit out which was a positive. It got me here. So it did what it needed to do. It got me to a school I wanted to be at. So it was perfect.”
Q: I’m assuming you had scholarship offers to choose from. So why did you decide to walk on at Arkansas?
A: “It’s because Coach B, he’s had a great record with putting people at the next level. I also wanted to play against the best. My brother (former Iowa tight end Zach Derby) made the statement to me if you can’t come to Arkansas and play … You shouldn’t have the aspiration to go to the next level if you can’t play here. I was like, ‘Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’”
Q: What other scholarship offers did you have on the table?
A: “I don’t know how many I had. But I was down to N.C. State and walking on here. I almost took a visit the weekend before I came here to N.C. State, but I decided not to. It’s funny that (Brandon Mitchell) went there now.”
Q: Coach Bielema goes a long way back with your family after playing with your dad (linebacker John Derby) at Iowa. How long have you known him?
A: “I mean, me and my brother were both born when my dad was at college. So I didn’t really know him. But he knew me. He offered me (a scholarship) when I was a sophomore when he was at Wisconsin. So I’ve known him for awhile.”
Q: So now that you’re playing for him what does your dad think?
A: “My dad is happy. He just wants me to be happy. But it’s really cool. When I talk to Coach B he’s like, ‘I never really realized how old I was until I started coaching the son of someone I played with.”
Q: What did you take from your time at Iowa. I know there was the incident (Derby was suspended for two games after being arrested for fourth-degree criminal mischief and public intoxication in Oct. 2011). What did you learn from it?
A: “The first thing I learned is I was way too immature for what I was trying to deal with at the time. I was second-string as a redshirt and I was just a freshman. So I was kind of too immature for what I needed to be doing. And so it took a lot of growing up. Just being that hometown kid, it was hard to get away from certain distractions. But it took a lot of growing up to move on and now I’m happy with what I came through. I wouldn’t change anything in the world for it. So it was good.”
Q: When you returned from your suspension you were moved from quarterback to defense and it ultimately led to your transfer. How hard was it leaving Iowa?
A: “It was really hard. I felt really bad because my brother was still there and I knew he’d get the crap for it because I changed my number when I left so I wouldn’t talk to anyone but my family and close friends. So I didn’t have to deal with any of it. I knew he’d get the hard part of it. So I felt really bad for him. But he told me he thought it was probably the best decision for me because I wasn’t really the right fit. So he was happy for me.”
Q: Your brother played at Iowa. Your dad played in the NFL. So did your uncle (former New Orleans Saints offensive lineman Glenn Derby). What is it like being part of a football family? Is football always part of the conversation?
A: “Me and my brother, we can talk offensive X’s and O’s the whole time. My dad will be lost. He just has no idea. No clue. He’s strictly a linebacker. But me and my brother, at Iowa they have a pretty pro-style offense so offense comes easy to him too. But usually around our whole family we try not to (talk football). We just try to be a family. We’re really close. We try not to affect our football with our family.”
Q: It sounds like you get a lot of advice from your brother. What does he mean to you?
A: “I look up to my brother a lot. He didn’t get any offers out of high school and walked on at Iowa. He ended up starting, I don’t know how many games, but he started a lot his junior year and a few his senior year. He’s just an example of what I kind of want to be. He’s a hard worker and that’s what got him to where he is. He’s not the most athletic guy, but he’s going to get it done because of how hard he’s going to work. That’s why I look up to him.”
Q: Are you the only quarterback in the family?
A: “I am. My dad was a linebacker. My grandpa was an offensive lineman. My brother was a tight end. My uncle was an offensive lineman.”
Q: So how did that happen?
A: “It’s a funny story, actually. I was in seventh grade and my dad’s best friend from high school, we were playing backyard football and I was throwing it around. He was like, ‘Why don’t you play quarterback?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I like to hit people.’ In seventh grade I said that. He was like, ‘Well, quarterback is your position.’ I just said ‘OK.’ So the next year I went out for quarterback and nothing has changed.”
Q: And now you’re getting ready to play quarterback in the SEC. We know Brandon Allen is the No. 1 guy and is in position to start. You obviously want to play, too, but what do you think about Brandon and the competition at quarterback?
A: “We actually get along great. We hang out all the time off the field. So we don’t really talk about it or anything like that. We’re just friends. We hang out. We both support each other and we both try to push each other at the same time. That’s how I think it should be.”