SMU will start a true freshman at quarterback in its season-opener that's less than two weeks away.
News that Bo Levi Mitchell, one of the first commitments to June Jones' initial recruiting class last year, had been promoted to the top of the Mustangs' depth chart dominated talk on the field and in the stands Monday as the team began preparations for Rice in the nationally-televised game Aug. 29.
Mitchell has not been declared the starter yet, but he and true freshman Braden Smith will receive the heavy dose of repetitions reserved for the starters in practice this week.
Should either Mitchell or Smith start, they will be the first true freshman to start a game at quarterback for SMU since Chris Phillips started at Tulsa in the 2003 season.
"Going through all the tapes, Bo and Braden (Smith) have a better understanding and are executing a little better so we're going to give them the reps," Jones said following Monday's rain-soaked practice in Ford Stadium. "Those guys will get the focus."
Jones notified the quarterbacks of their status Saturday night.
For Mitchell, it's a chance to start his career in his hometown and in a stadium he's very familiar with. Mitchell is from Katy, just west of Houston, and has played multiple playoff games at Rice Stadium the past two years.
"The fact that (Mitchell) has been in big games in high school, he seems to have a lot of poise and confidence," Jones said. "He could make the throws we needed to make."
Jones hinted that Mitchell might be the starter against Rice.
"My gut feeling is that if we give Bo the reps, he's physically the better passer right now for what we need to do," Jones said. "Bo was a little better than Braden today. Those things will clear themselves up. They both made mistakes today, but it's hard to throw the ball when it weighs 10 pounds."
Jones and quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison have been in this situation before. Timmy Chang, who held multiple school records at Hawaii before Colt Brennan broke them, started as a freshman. Both are now in the NFL.
"That's how (Chang) grew," Morris said. "There were some games where he struggled, but that's how he grows. We think (Mitchell and Smith) have the physical attributes and the emotional and mental attributes to do it. The biggest thing that helps them mature is to be on the field throwing balls.
"They'll be fine."For now, junior Justin Willis and redshirt freshman Logan Turner are the co-No. 3 quarterbacks. Both received equal repetitions in Monday's practice. Jones said the fifth quarterback, true freshman walk-on Winston Gamso from Highland Park, will redshirt.
Mental approach for Mitchell and Smith was a factorQuarterbacks coach Dan Morrison said other factors besides arm strength and accuracy played into the decision as to who would start. "You have to take a look at his personality, and is he ready to be the starter?" Morrison said. "He can be physically ready, but is he mentally ready? (Mitchell) proved that the game's not too big for him." Morris said Mitchell and Smith's maturity level is beyond what most true freshmen have, and they each carry a confidence and a moxie that the coaches have to see, and the players must see too. Bo demonstrated that he has a very strong arm and gets rid of the ball very quickly," he added. "He has a good grasp of the offense, which is always a surprise with a true freshman. He really invested a lot of time this summer making sure he was clear on the offense, and his physical arm strength and his accuracy and how quick the ball comes out were other factors. "At some point in training camp you've got to start making some decisions. The reps have to start changing," Morrison said. "It's a tough crossroads in camp, but it has to be done. We started out this week getting the guys that are going to be starting against Rice more reps."
What happens to Willis?Mitchell and Smith's promotion temporarily shelves the record-setting career of junior Justin Willis, who has thrown for more touchdown passes (51) than any other player in SMU history. He owns the two highest marks for touchdowns in a season with 25 last year and 26 in 2006. Willis was an honorable mention pick to the All-C-USA team last season. "Just like I told Justin, he's just one or two plays away from being the guy. You always have to be ready," Jones said. "He'll get another chance I'm sure down the line. But right now that's where he's headed. "Justin has been struggling a little bit for whatever reason the last couple of weeks, but he has a lot of positive qualities that he'll draw upon when he gets his chance to play. He's a team guy and he's going to continue to try and get better and be ready when the opportunity presents itself."
Sanders in tow on QB decisionEmmanuel Sanders, a close friend to Willis and SMU's top returning receiver, endorsed the decision to go with Mitchell and Smith. "I trust coach Jones. His credentials are high, so anything he says goes," Sanders said. "I have confidence in Bo, and I believe we can get the job done with him. Bo has a very strong arm and is very accurate. He's smart and makes the right reads. He's confident, and I like his swagger. It brings confidence to the team." Sanders said it doesn't matter that a true freshman is going to be throwing passes to him for the first time in his career. "(Mitchell's) a natural-born leader. As long as he's making the right throws and the right reads, it's cool," Sanders said. "I still have to make an adjustment. But I'm in it for the long-haul and in it to win. Coach told us at the beginning that the best players are going to play. I trust what coach is doing, and I believe in his system."
Mitchell ready for first start"Great competition helps push you. I've got 3-4 good quarterbacks pushing me. It pushed me the right way," Mitchell said. "It's still whoever goes out there and performs. Justin and Logan are still great quarterbacks, and they're going to go out there and keep working and get their chance back." Playing in a very-familiar Rice Stadium adds to the story of Mitchell's first start. "I like playing there. It'll be great to go down there and play again."
Other news and notes:Morrison slipped once when talking about the high school teams Smith and Mitchell came from. Morrison slipped while reaching for Mitchell's first name, and admitted he almost said Colt, referring to Colt Brennan, the former NCAA and Hawaii record-holding quarterback who is now in the Washington Redskins' training camp. . . . Jones is already thinking ahead toward getting an indoor practice facility. He led of his post-practice press conference mentioning the wet conditions and the need to go indoors. Jones managed practice today while dripping wet in his trademark long-sleeve sweatshirt and sweatpants. "We need an indoor facility. Hopefully we'll be able to work that out in the next couple of years," he said. Does he know something we don't? . . . Jones announced Gamso will be redshirting, and the coaches have determined which other players they plan to redshirt. He said they'll announce all of them together at another time. . . . As for practice, the quarterback news was the news off the field, but on the field it was a day for defense as the wet conditions allowed SMU's secondary to feast on underthrown balls. The defense came up with four turnovers in 7-on-7 drills, including two interceptions by safety Rock Dennis.