Mitchell hoping for more ups than downs this season
After the roller-coaster ride that was Blake Mitchell's season a year ago, he's not about to let one shaky outing this spring get the best of him.
Never mind that the timing was a bit ominous. His 13-for-39, two-interception clunker came during South Carolina's spring game Saturday with 35,000 fans watching at Williams-Brice Stadium and hoping to see the same Mitchell they saw at the end of last season.
Mitchell is well-versed in the ground rules when you're playing quarterback for Steve Spurrier. Actually, the fifth-year senior can recite them backward and forward.
Rule No. 1: You never take anything for granted.
So while Mitchell is still clearly the Gamecocks' starter heading into the 2007 season, that doesn't mean he'll necessarily stay the starter. Spurrier has been known to change quarterbacks the way most people change socks.
Mitchell had a front-seat view from the carousel a year ago. Coming off a solid 2005 season, he opened 2006 as the starter. But the Gamecocks struggled to move the ball, and he went the first two games without throwing a touchdown pass.
Spurrier didn't sit pat. Sensing that the Gamecocks were missing something with Mitchell behind center, he reinvented his offense and went with converted receiver Syvelle Newton at quarterback, and Mitchell took a seat on the bench.
He stayed there for the next 6½ games, and along the way, he got in some trouble off the field.
Mitchell was arrested and charged with simple assault after a bouncer at a Five Points bar near campus accused Mitchell of punching him. Mitchell had already been told by Spurrier that he was going to be replaced that week by Newton.
"I didn't handle it well and got myself in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Mitchell, who was suspended for a game.
The charge against Mitchell was later dismissed after the bouncer withdrew his complaint, but Mitchell had more pressing concerns.
He'd lost Spurrier's trust.
"I hung in there and knew that it was a matter of time before I got another chance to get back in there. When I did, I just wanted to go out there and leave it all on the field. I didn't like some of the things that happened and didn't like being on the bench for part of the season. But I have no regrets about the way I played when I got my chance again."
That chance came in the second half of the Arkansas game on Nov. 4, 2006. South Carolina lost 26-20, but Mitchell re-energized the passing game. He was 15 of 21 for 213 yards and two touchdowns, all in the second half. They were the first passes he'd completed since the Florida Atlantic game on Sept. 23, 2006.
More importantly, Mitchell served notice that he was back and finished the season by completing 69 percent of his passes for 1,467 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final 18 quarters. He capped the season by tying a Liberty Bowl record with four touchdown passes in South Carolina's 44-36 win over Houston.
"I just went out there and played," said Mitchell, explaining his turnaround in those last four games. "I'd worked hard all week in practice, studied the game plan and went out there and made a decision and went with it. I didn't hesitate too much.
"I tried to play the game the way Coach Spurrier coaches us, and things sort of fell into place."
Newton has departed, but redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Smelley played well in the spring game for the Black team. Heralded true freshman Stephen Garcia will also be a factor if he can stay out of trouble. He was suspended for the spring after being arrested twice this winter in a two-week span. Spurrier reinstated Garcia on Monday, two days after spring practice ended.
Whatever happens, Mitchell figures he's prepared for just about anything. He's had two years now to acclimate himself to Spurrier's system.
And while being a quarterback under the Head Ball Coach is never an easy proposition, it's a challenge Mitchell embraces.
"He expects a lot out of us and expects us to know what we're doing completely and what everybody around us is doing," Mitchell said. "If that's how you describe tough to play for, I guess he is. Mentally, once you learn it, you've learned it. But you're going to do it the right way for him, and the right way is the way he wants us to do it."
With Spurrier approaching his third season in Columbia, this might be his best chance yet to make South Carolina a contender for the Eastern Division championship. There is no clear-cut favorite, because Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all suffered major personnel losses and have key question marks entering the season.
Mitchell said it's time the Gamecocks step up and be counted in the East race, which might well hinge on him playing the entire season the way he ended it a year ago.
"The past two years, we've beaten some of the big teams and we know we can," Mitchell said. "It's a matter of going out there and believing in ourselves and playing good football."
Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.