The big news Thursday night wasn’t that Bryant senior quarterback Austin Ledbetter won the Landers Award, given to the state’s top prep football player. No, If Las Vegas laid odds on the award, Ledbetter would have been the overwhelming favorite.
After all, Ledbetter passed for 3,086 yards with 41 touchdowns and just five interceptions while leading Bryant to its third straight title.
So, Thursday night’s live television special announcing the winner was just a formality, but what the University of Arkansas baseball commit said after winning the award was a little surprising.
Ledbetter told me at his watch party at Lost Pizza Company in Bryant that he wants to play football at Arkansas in the fall. He has been committed to playing baseball for Hogs Coach Dave Van Horn since he was a ninth grader at Bryant Junior High School. He signed a letter of intent to play baseball in November.
“[Football] is definitely something I want to do,” Ledbetter said. “It’s up to Coach [Sam] Pittman – it’s in his hands. It’s been a conversation, and I really want to go play football at the University of Arkansas.”
Ledbetter went on to tell me that he wants to be at fall camp in August. Bryant Coach Buck James has spoken to Pittman to give his endorsement.
“There’s an outside chance, I think [Ledbetter] can play up there,” James said. “I think he can do very, very well. I honestly believe, it comes natural to him, and the defenses move slowly, and he is a winner and he can find people open. I think he can be a star at the University of Arkansas playing football.
“I think he will be as good as anybody across the country they can get.”
I have to admit I have only seen Ledbetter play baseball once, and he didn’t pitch. So, I don’t have a lot to reference there other than scouts and coaches have been impressed with him during high school, which he didn’t play last year due to COVID-19, and travel baseball.
I have seen him play football several times since he was a sophomore and agree with James when he says he is a Power 5 talent. Ledbetter moves well in the pocket can make all of the throws and has the intangibles you want in a quarterback such as leadership, confidence and the ability to thrive under pressure.
At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds he has decent size, especially for his speed. It’s a safe bet if he hadn’t committed to play baseball early, he would have many football offers.
The other point of reference I have is getting a look at other in-state QBs who have played at Arkansas such as Mitch Mustain, Tyler Wilson and Connor Noland, also a baseball pitcher who eventually settled on baseball. None of those players, including the Parade All-American Mustain were any better. Ledbetter compares favorably to them all. It’s important to point out that Mustain had the benefit of two Power 5 receivers, including Damian Williams who won the Landers Award and was among the top receivers in the nation. None of Ledbetter’s receivers has any college interest greater than Division II.
With UA 2020 starting QB Feleipe Franks departing, Pittman should really give Ledbetter a chance if it can be worked out with Van Horn, who Ledbetter said is OK with the move. I don’t really see what Pittman has to lose.
Sophomore K.J. Jefferson should win the starting job and could be a star at quarterback with his escapability if he can run the offense better and become more consistent passing the ball. Malik Hornsby is also another athletic option that is on campus, but there is a possibility that Ledbetter could come in and wow the coaches and be in the mix at least for a backup spot or show enough potential to be in the plans for future seasons.
If he decided to focus on football, he is only going to get better. He’s been playing both sports in high school, and baseball has taken up a lot of his summers. He won’t have trouble picking up the offense and will do whatever the coaching staff asks of him. That’s why James won’t be surprised if he starts under center before his career is over.
I could tell Thursday night his heart is really in this. If he plays baseball and his arm is as good as scouts say, he could be in line to make a living playing pro baseball. He knows that and still wants to play football. That should tell Pittman and Hogs fans all they need to know.
Time will tell whether this will work or not, but those around him that are encouraging him to play football aren’t wrong, and Pittman should make room in the quarterback room for him if he wants to be on campus in August.