Mitchell Shines Off Bench, Named New Starter

Almost two years ago, Steve Spurrier was named the head football coach at the University of South Carolina. At the time, many observers expected to see a revolving door at quarterback as the Ball Coach tried to mold Lou Holtz's players to fit his system. Since that time, however, there has never been a question who the starting quarterback should be. Until now.

Blake Mitchell led the Gamecocks to a bowl game last year, and despite throwing too many interceptions late in the year, had what was overall considered a fine sophomore season. With that year of experience under his belt, Mitchell was expected to flourish this season. Entering into the 2006 campaign, Spurrier even said he thought Mitchell could be an All-SEC Quarterback.

All that changed two games into the year. The offense had scored just one touchdown, a flea flicker thrown by then-wide receiver Syvelle Newton. Mitchell got into a fight at a bar in Five Points and was arrested. Though the charges were dropped, the damage had been done. Mitchell was suspended, and Newton made the switch to quarterback in an attempt to spark the offense. Newton was no stranger to position changes, having made a switch no fewer than four times during his career, not counting some time he spent in defensive meetings last spring. With this switch, he thrived. The offense took off, with Newton leading the way. Newton threw 5 touchdowns against FAU, and led USC to near upsets against Auburn and Tennessee, playing phenomenally in the later game after suffering a concussion in the second quarter.

A week later, Newton struggled. His passes were off target during the first half. For Spurrier, there was only one thing to do. "Syvelle was off tonight," Spurrier explained. "He couldn't hit much of anything. I just said, ‘We've got to see if Blake can throw the ball better than you're throwing it right now.' He understood."

Mitchell came in and made the story interesting. He went 15-21 for 213 yards and two touchdowns, resurrecting a dormant offense much the way Newton had done earlier in the year. Spurrier called Mitchell's performance as "as good a half of football, except for one throw, as about any quarterback I think I've ever had. For us to beat them, he had to play perfect, and he didn't play perfect. [But ] he was playing beautifully until the last play." Then came the bombshell. "Blake played well enough to play again," Spurrier said. "We're going to let Blake go [start against Florida]."

Spurrier left the podium, and soon Mitchell replaced him, unaware that he had just been named the starter. When he was asked about starting next week, Mitchell brushed the question off, saying, "I haven't heard anything. It's Coach's decision and we've been going by that all year." When a reporter explained that Spurrier had in fact named him the starter, Mitchell, normally very reticent in front of the media, seemed to relax a little bit.

Mitchell talked about how he had struggled at times to maintain his confidence after being benched. "I was definitely down on myself," he said. "It's hard going from number one to number two. Syvelle's been doing a great job out there. He's won us some games and done very well." Mitchell kept his focus by reminding himself that a second chance could come at any time. "I'm one play away from being back in there. He could get hurt or anything, I always have to be ready. I knew it was only a matter of time before I get another chance, and I just wanted to make the best of it. I've hung in there and done my best in practice, and just hope and pray for another chance."

Mitchell continued to work hard in practice, and it paid off when he was called on. At halftime, Mitchell was told he would be taking over. "They went over what coverages they're playing and some plays we wanted to get to," Mitchell said. "[Newton] just told me to go out there, and he knew I could do it. I told him thanks and went on out there. I always knew I could do it. I always believed in myself and knew that if I could get back out there I could do it. I just needed to get another chance to prove myself."

Mitchell did not disappoint, as he came out on fire. "It felt great when I went in there," he said. "I've been there before. It was no different then playing out there last year. Things were clicking for us. The receivers were running great routes and getting open. The offensive line was giving me time to get rid of it. If you can give a quarterback time to throw it and the receivers can run good routes, you get in that zone and it seems like you can hit everything."

For his part, Newton was visibly upset after the game. Like Mitchell, he found out from the media that Mitchell would start against Florida. Newton was not sure what that meant for his role in the offense, and grew impatient answering questions he could not answer. "When you ain't got it going, you've got to try other stuff to get it going," he said. "I guess I wasn't getting it done. That's what the game showed. I don't comment on the coaches' decisions. Blake looked good; you can't take anything from him."

Newton now finds himself in a position similar to the one Mitchell faced back in September. For his part, Spurrier is also in a difficult position. He has two quarterbacks who have performed admirably this year, but who bring a very different skill set to the offense. On Sunday, Spurrier explained his expectations for his two quarterbacks. "[Mitchell] will definitely start. His play deserved him to start. There's a good chance Syvelle may play some at quarterback too."

For once, the quarterback controversy is caused by an embarrassment of riches. Carolina has a number of playmakers on offense, and it so happens that two of them play quarterback. Spurrier's challenge is to figure out how to take advantage of both of them. When pressed on the issue, Spurrier admitted Newton's versatility means he could line up anywhere. Asked where that will be, Spurrier said, "We haven't decided yet." The only thing that is for certain is that, for the next game at least, Blake Mitchell will lead the Gamecocks.

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