The Odd Couple

FAYETTEVILLE -- The two childhood friends call each other whenever they get the chance, maybe once every two or three weeks.

Sometimes, they talk about football but mostly their conversations are about life, family and the LaGrange (Ga.) High football team.

Chances are Arkansas linebacker Sam Olajubutu will speak to South Carolina backup quarterback Blake Mitchell sometime before their teams meet at 6:45 p.m. Saturday for a nationally televised game in Columbia, S.C.

But that shouldn't come as a surprise. That's what former Granger teammates do: They stay in touch.

"I know that I can talk to Sam about anything," Mitchell said. "We don't just talk about injuries or things like that, but we trust each other and feel like we can talk about whatever."

At first glance, it might seem odd that a linebacker as competitive as Olajubutu is close friends with the former starting quarterback of one his Southeastern Conference rivals. But the senior sees nothing strange about it.

Olajubutu and Mitchell have known each other since they played in the same recreational basketball league when they were 11 and 12 years old. They both grew up in LaGrange, Ga. (population around 27,000), and they celebrated a state championship together as teammates on the LaGrange High football team.

Considering their pasts, it might seem odd if Olajubutu and Mitchell didn't keep in touch, SEC rivalry or not.

"We just grew up together," Olajubutu said. "And when we come on the football field, we just bind together and have so much unity it's hard for us not to just stick together, keep up with each other."

The two friends try to talk as much as possible, and when Mitchell changed his cell phone number in the summer, Olajubutu called LaGrange High football coach Steve Pardue to get the new number.

"Those two are a lot a like," Pardue said. "They both had a good understanding of the game at a young age."

Olajubutu and Mitchell became starters for LaGrange High in 1999 when the team finished 2-8, its first losing season in 11 years. Olajubutu was a sophomore and the youngest of three brothers to play for the Grangers; Mitchell was a freshman.

Pardue said Olajubutu, whom he still refers to as Junior, is undoubtedly the best player he's ever coached. Mitchell, meanwhile, is perhaps the best of a long line of college quarterbacks to have starred at LaGrange.

In their first full season together as starters, in 2000, LaGrange went 11-1 and won a regional championship. The following year, the team went undefeated and captured the first of Pardue's three state titles.

"Sam was a year older, but we were close when we were teammates," Mitchell said. "He's a real good guy, and we got along very well with each other. We still do."

Their frequent phone calls cover a number of different topics, from how their families are doing to how good of a season is LaGrange High having. But Olajubutu said there was one topic that his friend didn't talk to him about.

Mitchell was South Carolina's starting quarterback until he lost the job in September to senior Syvelle Newton. The change came after Mitchell was arrested for allegedly punching a bouncer in the face.

Olajubutu said he didn't talk to Mitchell about the situation.

"I know when I call him, he doesn't want to tell me he's doing bad or something he messed up in," Olajubutu said. "And the same thing (when) he calls me.

"I want to tell him stuff is going good, and I don't want to have nothing bad to tell him about what's going on up here."

But there is a chance that the two childhood friends could face each other Saturday.

After missing last week's 44-10 win over Louisiana-Monroe because of a knee injury, Olajubutu is expected to be ready by Saturday.

Mitchell, meanwhile, has taken snaps with South Carolina's first-team offense this week in practice because Newton has a minor concussion.

Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said he believes Newton will be ready to play Saturday against the No. 12 Razorbacks. If not, Olajubutu will get another chance to hit his former LaGrange teammate.

Mitchell was South Carolina's starting quarterback when he led the Gamecocks to a 14-10 win in Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Nov. 5.

"He got me a couple times last year when we played out at their place," Mitchell said, referring to Olajubutu's hitting. "He didn't say anything, though. He just got back up and went back to his huddle, and I went back to my huddle.

"He didn't talk trash or anything like that."

They instead save the talking for the phone.

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