@story WHITNEY RAY
@images WALT BEAZLEY/UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS
It's late in the fourth quarter. On the road. An unruly crowd of Texans, some in boots and 10-gallon hats, fill Cowboys Stadium. Arkansas is trailing by a touchdown. The ball snaps. Tyler Wilson catches it on Texas A&M's 30 yard line. In less than three seconds Tyler will be eating artificial turf, pummeled in the back by an Aggie defender weighing 200 pounds and running at speeds greater than 20 miles per hour.
Tyler sees it coming. His muscles never tense. Instead the Razorback quarterback stays calm and focused. He stands tall in the pocket, sets his feet, and fires a tight spiral downfield before he’s slammed to the ground, with no time to put his hands down to break the fall.
By the time Tyler pops back up the Hogs have scored the game-tying touchdown. Behind their undaunted leader, the Hogs go on to win, beating the higher ranked Aggies 42 - 38. The October victory marked the fourth win of Arkansas' 2011 season and the beginning of a seven-game game winning streak. The Hogs ended the season 11 - 2, Cotton Bowl champs, and fifth in the nation.
But getting there meant Tyler, a 22-year-old junior at the time, would have his physical and mental toughness tested. As Arkansas moved from eighteenth in the nation to the Top 10, the defenders became more aggressive and the hits got harder. In sacks alone, the Greenwood native was knocked to the ground twenty-six times. That's an average of two a game, and doesn't include times when Tyler released the ball before being hammered by a defender.
In situations where many quarterbacks would take a knee or run out-of-bounds to avoid having their helmet knocked off, Tyler just breathes. Throwing the ball means fully exposing his head and chest to the defense. It means he can't block the knock with his shoulder pads or stop his fall with his hands. Most coaches tell quarterbacks to avoid contact, throw the ball away or just fall down. Quarterbacks’ pads are thinner to give them better mobility to pass and run. A big hit can sideline a quarterback for a game, a season, or even a career.
Tyler's bravery in the pocket, along with the Razorbacks’ hot streak, thrust the young leader into the national spotlight. In the winter of 2011 you couldn't watch an episode of ESPN's SportsCenter without seeing #8 being clobbered before completing a pass.
It's more mental than physical, Tyler says. He learned that growing up in Greenwood, playing every sport possible, and studying the work ethic and resolve of people in the River Valley. As a young teen Tyler’s sights were set on baseball. He was an all-star pitcher with major league dreams. But in high school, his talents on the gridiron became apparent.
His first start was against Fort Smith Southside. The Rebels boast some of the state's fastest and strongest players. Tyler's coach warned him. Told him to run out-of-bounds if he was in trouble. He didn't listen. Early in the game the young quarterback was hit so hard his facemask jolted halfway around his head and he was knocked to the ground. Tyler jumped up, looked through the ear hole of the helmet asked his coach to call the next play. Tyler led the Bulldogs to two state championships and his future in football was forged. Greenwood lost one game during his senior season, a 44 - 7 blow-out against Little Rock Christian.
Tyler still remembers the sting of the loss. "I think we learned from that game, and that was a time when seniors, juniors, and the whole team came together and responded. It was a pivotal moment and more of a positive for our team," Tyler said.
After that, Greenwood treated every scrimmage like a game. The team walked arm and arm onto the practice field. A month later the Bulldogs replayed Little Rock Christian for the Arkansas State Championship and won 27 - 6.
Tyler sees a lot of similarities between his senior season at Greenwood and his final season with the Razorbacks. Expectations at Greenwood are always high, given the school's winning tradition. It's the same with the Hogs. And going into the 2012 season, the Hogs face adversity. Three of the team’s top receivers are gone and so is former head coach Bobby Petrino, who was fired amid a swell of controversy involving his relationship with another U of A employee. The calamity has football analysts placing Arkansas down in the rankings from their 2011 Top 5 finish.
Tyler drowns it all out and focuses on improving his game. He gives himself a C+ for his performance last year and is promising Hog fans a better showing. "I think I'm a much more oiled quarterback this year. I'm game-versed now. Much more relaxed. I have a better understanding of what we want to do. As a result, I think you will see a better quarterback. Hopefully it will be more of an ‘A’ year," Tyler said.
If last year was a C+, an “A” in 2012 would surely make Tyler a finalist for the Heisman trophy. The buzz has already begun and with Arkansas' strength of schedule, Tyler will have the national exposure needed to woo the judges. "I’m not going to talk much about it. I'm honored to be considered in that category. If we win games then that can be talked about," said Tyler.
The senior is willing to put it all on the line to bring a championship home. He knows, deserving or not, if the Razorbacks win he'll get the accolades. If they lose, he'll shoulder the blame. It's all part of being the quarterback.
"There is a mental toughness that you have to have as well as physical toughness. Mental toughness is being able to throw a pick late in the game and have everybody blame you for it. You could be the hero or you could be the goat, so to speak, and you have to handle that as a quarterback."
With his team looking to him, you can expect the 6'3, 220 lb. senior to lead by example.
"The quarterback doesn't take the hits every day in practice. So to show your teammates how much it means to you, you've got to take some licks and get right back up. I think players feed off that and say, ‘Hey, he's tough and we can play for him.'"
To take the hits needed to lead his team, Tyler’s trained his body to ignore its natural reactions. He knows when a defender has his number, but throws the ball anyway. "A lot of times you do see them. But you also see a receiver down the field and you know if you can stand in there long enough to deliver the ball and gain a lot of good yardage or a touchdown, the hit doesn't hurt nearly as bad. That's my thought a lot of times. If I can just hold the ball enough to deliver a good throw down the field and give us a chance to make a good play, I'll take the lick every single time.”
The good news this season is Arkansas will play its toughest games at home. The Razorbacks only two losses in 2011 were to top ranked Alabama and #2 LSU. Both games were on the road. This year the Hogs have home field advantage, which Tyler describes as "huge." He’s ready to give the fans a show, even if it means taking some big “licks” along the way.