A New Day

When the University of Arkansas hosts Utah State Saturday night at 6 p.m., a pair of long-time buddies - Mitch Mustain and Damian Williams - will be playing catch on a much bigger stage than they started doing so when they were in the fifth grade.

Damian Williams has been playing catch with Mitch Mustain since they were fifth-graders on the same youth football team.

The two went on to play for the same baseball team, where they tossed around a different type of ball.

And even when Mustain and Williams attended opposing junior high schools, they continued playing catch because they knew it was only a matter of time before they'd be reunited on the same Springdale High football team.

"We've been playing catch forever," Williams said.

And the two childhood friends haven't stopped, except now they're doing it on a much larger stage with the entire state of Arkansas watching closely.

It took only one game -- and for that matter, only one late scoring drive in a 50-14 loss to No. 3 Southern California in last Saturday's season opener -- for Mustain to earn the starting quarterback job at Arkansas.

Not surprisingly, the first long completion of Mustain's college career went to Williams, his former high school wide receiver, for 42 yards.

Mustain will make his much anticipated first start against Utah State (0-1) at 6 p.m. today in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

And everyone, from coaches and teammates to fans and the media, is eager to see how Mustain will handle his new role -- which seemed destined to be his when he signed with Arkansas in February.

"I still have a lot to prove, if to nobody else but myself," Mustain said. "We've got to win games. We hope to win this one (against Utah State) big, and I'm going to do everything I can to do that."

Mustain will be only the eighth true freshman in Arkansas' history to start a game at quarterback. He joins a selective group that includes current backup quarterback Casey Dick (2005) and coach Houston Nutt (1976).

In fact, Mustain's first start will come three weeks shy of the 30th anniversary of when Nutt made his first start as a freshman, filling in for an injured Ron Calcagni in a 46-14 win over TCU on Oct. 2, 1976.

Nutt said the nerves settle down and things get easier after that first start.

"You get confidence," Nutt said. "You know you can play, (but) there is always questions coming from high school, 'Can I play on this level?'"

The difference between Mustain and the other freshman starters is that he faces the type of high expectations that come with being perhaps the most decorated recruit to ever sign with the Razorbacks.

He's a hometown hero and a fan favorite whose often recognized while shopping at the mall. And he was dubbed both the savior and the future of Arkansas' football team before he even took a snap in a college game.

"We'd be kidding ourselves thinking he's not going to make mistakes. He's still a freshman," said Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who was Mustain's coach at Springdale High. "But in the past, he's learned from them and gotten better."

Coaches expect there to be some growing pains when a freshman starts at quarterback. The speed of the college game is much faster, the defensive backs are quicker and a pass that might have gone for a long touchdown in high school are often times intercepted.

Mustain found that out last Saturday when he threw his first college interception. Nutt said Mustain probably didn't even see USC linebacker Thomas Williams when he threw a pass intended for Marcus Monk.

"He should have dumped the ball off there," Nutt said, "but he'll get that corrected and he'll learn as he goes."

Mustain has shown an unusual amount of poise for an 18-year-old freshman, and he has the arm strength and cool nature under pressure to possibly be Arkansas' starting quarterback for the next few years.

"It was exciting," Mustain said of being named the starter. "It's something I've been working for."

Apparently, all those times when Mustain and Williams played catch have paid off.

"I knew he had great potential to (start), but that was up to him, whether or not he wanted to go out there and take care of business," Williams said. "So far, he's proved that he's ready to take care of business.

"We'll see (today)."

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