There isn't any reason to read tea leaves with searing scrutiny when there's a minor mass exodus of football players after spring practice ends, right? Unless, of course, the defecting foursome announced by the University of Arkansas on Monday includes:
• A three-year letterman who has capably demonstrated his quarterbacking skills at various times the past few seasons, then in 2012 made waves as both a part-time wideout then a late-season disciplinary casualty for still-undisclosed investigative reasons.
• A theoretically vital defensive lineman who transferred in last year with some measure of fanfare, then finally got his sea legs late in the season and looked like a potential contributor for 2013.
• A coveted small-town Arkansas prospect from last year's class who probably could have been plugged into any number of positions.
• A onetime celebrated receiver prospect who, despite his inexperience to date, had as good a chance as anyone to fit into the catching cadre or at least be a return specialist and gadget player.
The releases from the program for Brandon Mitchell, Austin Flynn, Defonta Lowe and Keante Minor, respectively, made ripples only because all four have played and all four had expectations of playing more. It's not insignificant that someone groomed to be a starting quarterback at this very point in his career is now, months before that, carting his unique skills elsewhere, nor is it just a footnote that someone like Flynn, who brought a little bit of pizzazz to a woebegone defense last year at times, is bailing out. (Flynn had a publicized legal issue in February that basically triggered his dismissal long ago, but his release was only granted this week.)
Bret Bielema's active Twitter feed, given the truncated nature of the medium, didn't exactly say a lot. But he managed to offer up one phrase that carried some logical weight: "Transition is a process."
It wasn't surprising when Bobby Petrino came onboard that Ryan Mallett suddenly had designs on playing for the team he grew up watching. And it wasn't shocking that once Mallett became eligible, Nathan Dick summarily high-tailed it to Conway to finish out his career at Central Arkansas. Mitchell wasn't a prototype Bielema quarterback, either, though perhaps everyone felt he could excel the way Russell Wilson did in his one season under Bielema's watch at Madison.
The hang-up there: Wilson had spent three years slinging it, rather prolifically, for North Carolina State, while Mitchell remains unproven as a college quarterback with only 43 attempts through three seasons. And Mitchell wasn't mincing words when he said a while back that he was "strictly focused on [playing] quarterback." To his credit, the young man put his money where his mouth was, and he's leaving with most Hog fans fondly recalling his selfless move to wideout last year and generally empathizing with his desire to advance his career elsewhere if that's what suits him.
Mitchell may see the field for some other program this fall and that's no great sin for Mitchell, or for Hog fans. It is easy to see Mitchell's physique and watch him seamlessly run pass routes and zip throws and simply assume that he's the heir apparent to Tyler Wilson, but Brandon Allen didn't come to this program without pedigree or gifts of his own, and what the Russell Wilson experiment actually proved is that Bielema doesn't deem stature to be all that critical. It's about heady leadership first and foremost, and it's abundantly clear now that for all of Mitchell's contributions and selflessness over the years, Bielema, Jim Chaney and others view Allen as the right guy at the right time.
And the read on the other departures is parallel: Flynn, Minor and Lowe all have lots of learning to do, and maybe even flourishing, at other locales. Hog fans always wince about those players who skipped town after a year or two and found a niche at a smaller program, maybe even parlayed it into an NFL career, but this staff wasn't brought here to make friends or kowtow to seniors at the expense of others.
Transition is a process.