"No matter what spot he's at A.J.'s got a tremendous amount of football intellect," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said after Tuesday's practice. "He gets the game of football. Everything comes pretty simple for him."
Teammate and fellow tight end Hunter Henry said Derby is doing more than just adapting to the position. He's helping the other tight ends better understand their overall role in the offense, telling reporters, "Just from being a quarterback his knowledge of the offense is bringing a lot to the tight ends. The coverages, the blitzes we face. Everything. He's bringing a different side to us."
Derby admits that as a senior he didn't immediately warm up to the idea of switching positions.
"I'm really a bullheaded person," Derby admitted. "I really always thought I could play quarterback at this level but it came time to talk to coach B a few times and I just felt like it was best for the team. I'm excited to move forward and try to help the team win."
From the beginning Derby demonstrated an ability to get himself open while running pass routes. He offered an simple explanation for that: "Just knowing the playbook and knowing what Brandon (Allen) and the other quarterbacks are looking for, it comes natural for me to be where they want me to be."
It is easier to accept the notion of a former quarterback catching passes than doing the grunt work of the position but Henry said Derby has been a suprisingly effective pass blocker.
"He's a pretty big guy if you look at him," Henry smiled. "He's not tiny. So he's adjusting. He's a strong guy in the weight room. I mean he wanted to hit people at quarterback."
As a former starting quarterback at Arkansas Derby's new position coach is in a unique position to understand the mental approach he brought to the position change.
"I don't think by any stretch of the imagination that he waved the white flag at the quarterback competition because he's a competitor," tight ends coach Barry Lunny Jr. stressed. "But he wants to play and if coach B feels like this is his best chance to play a significant amount going forward then, I think, he welcomed it."
If Derby is full speed ahead in his new career direction the status of redshirt freshmen quarterback Damon "Duwop" Mitchell is still up in the air after Bielema asked him to move to wide receiver for the remainder of the spring. Mitchell was not made available for interviews following Tuesday's practice but receivers coach Michael Smith was encouraged by what he's heard from Mitchell so far.
"I think he's buying in," Smith revealed. "We've had discussions, both he and I and he's also had discussions with the rest of the wide receivers. They told him, 'Just embrace this. See what you can do. Do what's best for the football team and enjoying it while you have it. If it's something you don't like, go back to quarterback.' "
What does Mitchell bring to the table as a pass catcher?
"I think you saw Saturday (2nd spring scrimmage) what type of player he is when he has the ball in his hands," Smith raved. "We're trying to feed him some candy so he can go out there and get a taste of it and he did some good things."