South Carolina Quarterback Last Man Standing

FAYETTEVILLE --Just for the record, South Carolina has used three different quarterbacks -- Blake Mitchell, Antonio Heffler and Syvelle Newton -- this season.

But ....

Only one -- that would be Mitchell -- has survived and has been head-and-shoulder pads above the rest of the quarterbacks as the Gamecocks (5-3 overall, 3-3 in the Southeastern Conference) have almost become bowl eligible.

That almost in the above sentence could be erased with a win against Arkansas (2-5, 0-4) at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Maybe, because of Mitchell.

Imagine that?

A skinny, 6-foot-3, 194-pound redshirt sophomore from LaGrange, Ga., leading his team to another postseason party.

And there's strong evidence to support that.

In a 16-15 win against then-No. 23 Tennessee last weekend on the road, Mitchell was 22 of 36 passing for 242 yards.

Was it his best game?

"Yes, because we won in a place where it is tough to win," Mitchell said. "Things really clicked for us in the second half and we were able to come out of there with a win.

"Arkansas is a tough team coming up and we need to play very well again this week so we are focused on them now."

It was just a continuation of his season, which began to manifest itself last spring when he was named the co-recipient (along with Heffler) of the team's Most Improved Quarterback Award.

"It's been a lot of teaching and a lot of steps or whatever that Blake has undertaken," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. "He's improved tremendously. Our first scrimmage last spring, I think we had eight turnovers. We could barely get the snap from center and we certainly couldn't hit anybody downfield. Although it was a windy day that day, we were a struggling bunch throughout the spring."

"What Blake is finally learning is about defenses and where to throw the ball and all that kind of thing. Decision making. That's the biggest thing. He's always been a pretty good passer and I think he's improved his passing also. So he's come a long way and everyone feels confident with him at quarterback now, which is a good feeling for us coaches."

That's high praise from a coach with a reputation of being hard to play for in the past, especially for a quarterback who didn't throw a lot in high school.

"We had a real strong running game in high school and we usually had big leads at the half, so I didn't need to throw the ball a lot," Mitchell said. "As far as adjusting to coach Spurrier's offense, I feel like it's going OK. We are still working hard to improve and we need to improve, but when things are clicking."

Don't think the Arkansas staff hasn't noticed, either.

"I think the biggest story, to me, is their quarterback," said Razorbacks defensive coordinator Reggie Herring. "I think their quarterback is playing with a lot more poise and confidence. He's not making as bad a decisions as he was making earlier in the year, there's not as many gifts.

"He went into Knoxville and showed a lot of poise."

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt nodded.

"He's done a great job," Nutt said. "You can see the improvements he's made. He's really improved from the first week until now.

"He's gotten better and better."

In seven games, Mitchell is 131 of 206 with 6 interceptions for 1,656 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's averaging 236.6 yards per game.

Not bad for a dude who injured his ankle against Troy in a 45-20 win Sept. 24.

"I'm OK now," Mitchell said "It isn't really an issue anymore."

Arkansas junior linebacker Sam Olajubutu knows how tough, how good, Mitchell is, because he played with him in high school.

"He was an awesome quarterback back in high school," Olajubutu said. "Where I came from, we had a great program. He was probably the only quarterback in history that came in and started as a freshman in high school.

"That says a lot about him right there. He's a great kid, great quarterback, he's smart and has a strong arm."

"His strength is passing the ball. He doesn't make too many bad throws behind the receiver or down.

"He's got a good arm."

Olajubutu, who keeps in touch with Mitchell when he's home, said facing his former high school teammate might be awkward.

"It's going to be weird out there," Olajubutu said. "I'm going to do a little trash-talking with him.

"It's just going to be good to get out there and see him again."

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