FAYETTEVILLE Bret Bielema left little doubt about the foreseeable future when he said returning starter Brandon Allen had pulled away from the rest of the Arkansas quarterbacks following a scrimmage last week.
The Arkansas coach had good reason for his declaration, both for Allen and the rest of the Razorbacks.
Despite an injury-plagued and disappointing season a year ago in his first as the starter, Allen has been at the forefront of a surge in optimism surrounding the passing game at Arkansas this spring.
Whether the newfound comfort level will translate to an improvement in the Southeastern Conference's worst aerial attack from a year ago won't be known until the fall.
Until then, the pressure is squarely on Allen's shoulders to show how far Arkansas has come since bottoming out in Bielema's first season — a 3-9 debacle that saw the Razorbacks go winless in the SEC for the first time since joining the league in 1992.
By all accounts, and based on a pair of open scrimmages, the early results this spring have shown that Allen no longer resembles a first-year starter struggling to pick up offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's offense.
This is the junior's team, for better or worse, and he wouldn't have it any other way leading into next week's spring game.
"I think last year at this time a lot of people weren't on the same page at all," Allen said. "... Right now, (the offense) is pretty much honed. I think the older guys have done a good job of teaching it to the younger guys. We're definitely a lot better schemed right now."
Arkansas spent last spring practicing in Bielema's system for the first time. The pace and setup of practice, along with the passing routes and play calls, were all vastly different than under former coaches Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith.
The results were nothing short of disastrous in the passing game, where the Razorbacks finished last in the SEC with an average of 148.5 yards passing.
Allen, in his first season as the starter, didn't fare much better while working his way through an early season shoulder injury for much of the year. The Fayetteville native and son of a former Arkansas assistant coach had the worst passer rating of any SEC starter, completing 128 of 258 passes (49.6 percent) while throwing 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
The lack of success through the air was difficult for many in the state to watch, particularly after the school had become accustomed to fielding one of the top passing offenses in the country under Petrino.
The criticism, particularly of the injured Allen, was even more difficult to read and hear for the quarterback's family — including Arkansas backup quarterback Austin Allen, the younger brother of the starter.
"It's tough when you see Twitter and all that stuff and you see what people say about him," Allen said. "But we both have tough skin; that's just how my parents raised us."
With last season's struggles behind him, and his shoulder completely healed, Brandon Allen returned to the practice field this spring with the intention on proving — to his teammates and himself — that he was the unquestioned starter for the Razorbacks.
He's done just that so far, completing 26 of 35 passes (74.3 percent) for three touchdowns and one interception through two open scrimmages.
The latest performance was what caused Bielema to say Allen has "separated himself" from his younger brother and any other challengers, a vote of confidence Allen said showed Bielema "has the trust in me to lead this offense and do good things for us."
Bielema's confidence in Allen is also shared by Chaney, the former Tennessee offensive coordinator who has praised the progress of both the quarterback and the offense overall. Chaney said he's been able to call plays this spring without last year's learning curve, and Allen has played a large role in that.
All that's left is to carry forward this spring's progress into next season, something Chaney has little doubt is on deck for Allen and the rest of the offense.
"I don't think Brandon's scratched the surface yet on the type of player he can be, and I look forward to watching him become that," Chaney said.