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June 28, 2010Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett eventually may look back at his broken foot as the best thing he never wanted.
Mallett broke his left foot during a February conditioning workout as he prepared for his highly anticipated junior season. The injury sidelined him for spring practice and has limited what he can do this summer.
But the foot problem also caused him to make a mechanical adjustment in his delivery that might end his history of accuracy problems.
"I shortened my stride up a little bit, and I've been putting the ball everywhere I want to," Mallett said. "In the past, I might not have put it in the exact spot I want. Even with my foot, I'm putting it in the exact spot I want.
"Shortening my stride is the main thing. You can tell the difference."
Mallett had a screw replaced in his left foot June 9 and is scheduled to start throwing again this week; he should have no problem being ready for the Razorbacks' Sept. 4 season opener with FCS member Tennessee Tech. Mallett, a 6-foot-7 junior, was throwing before that procedure, though his injury forced him into some changes.
"I couldn't step out and put weight on my left foot because I had the boot on," Mallett said. "When I was throwing, my stride was shorter."
He said the shortened stride has helped him become more of an all-around passer and "not just a thrower."
If this transformation continues into the season, Mallett could emerge as a Heisman candidate while making Arkansas a dark-horse contender for the SEC title.
Mallett made a big impact last season, his first as Arkansas' starter after transferring from Michigan. He broke or tied 16 school records while throwing for 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns, leading the SEC in both categories. He ranked seventh in the nation in passing efficiency.
If Mallett chooses to turn pro after this season, he won't have to wait long to hear his name called. He generally is regarded as one of the top three draft-eligible quarterbacks, along with Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck.
"The biggest thing he brings is confidence," Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams said. "Some people may mistake it for cockiness, but he's very confident in what he does and most of the time he backs it up. That's a great thing to see in a leader of the team. It's a great motivation for us every time we break the huddle."
Mallett's main weakness has been his accuracy. He completed just 43.3 percent (61-of-141) of his passes in 2007, his lone season at Michigan, and his 55.8 completion percentage last season was the lowest of anyone who ranked in the top 30 in passing efficiency.
"My completion percentage wasn't as good as it should have been," Mallett said. "I missed too many easy throws."
The problem was most obvious against the top defenses on Arkansas' schedule (see chart). Mallett was 12-of-35 in a 35-7 loss to Alabama. He was 12-of-27 in a 23-20 loss to Florida and 17-of-39 in a 33-30 overtime setback at LSU. He completed less than half his pass attempts in five of Arkansas' 13 games, four of them losses.
Upgrading that part of his game could pay dividends for Mallett if he chooses to enter the draft.
"That's something we definitely would like to see him improve on, especially down the field," said Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraft.com. "A lot of it has to do with his technique. He's got a little longer and slower delivery just because he has such long arms. And there's his footwork as well. He had a tendency not to step into his throws and just use his arms to complete passes.
"With his arm strength, you can get by with that, but that's the reason why his accuracy has been an issue."
Mallett knows he wants to improve his completion percentage, but he doesn't have a specific number in mind. He's focusing on team goals rather than individual aims.
Arkansas discovered last season about the thin line that separates a great season from a merely good one. The Razorbacks led Florida and LSU in the fourth quarter, yet they failed to beat either team. Mallett has watched those games countless times to see what the offense could have done different.
The Razorbacks return nine starters on offense and seven more on defense, and teams goals are high.
"I've never been a numbers guy," Mallett said. "If you play the game for yourself, don't play. I don't want you on the team. There's one goal we've got here. If you're not trying to reach that goal, don't come to Arkansas."
Though the injury has limited him for much of the offseason, Mallett has found other ways to show his leadership. He has shown up for every workout, offering vocal encouragement to teammates. He wants to make sure Arkansas makes the most of this opportunity.
"He's showing people how serious he is about this season," Williams said. "People may get lost in all the hype that Ryan gets day in and day out with nationwide exposure, but he's the one trying to get this team ready and not just himself ready. It's a great example of leadership, and it's starting to be contagious throughout the team."
Mallett has sensed that bond developing among his teammates. He believes fans and opponents will notice this fall.
"This team's very unique," he said. "This is the closest team as far as being together. The camaraderie on this team is really going to help us when it's late in the game, in the fourth quarter and when people are banged up and hurting late in the season. It's really going to help us in the long run."
Of course it's not late in the season yet -- heck, it's not even the start of the season -- and Mallett already has been hurting. But in this case, the injury may end up paying off for his team. What he learned while he was in pain eventually could lead to plenty of joy.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.