RALEIGH, N.C. — After the spring game this year, one thing was clear: N.C. State coach Dave Doeren needed more options at quarterback. He now has five. Two are freshmen, and two are the quarterbacks that were already there in the spring (Pete Thomas, Manny Stocker).
And then there’s the wildcard — Brandon Mitchell, a graduate transfer from Arkansas.
“(Depth at quarterback is) the one thing I do feel good about. In the spring, we didn’t have any. Now, there’s competition,” Doeren said. “At least you feel good about the fact that there’s five guys competing as opposed to two.”
Mitchell backed up Ryan Mallet for two years at Arkansas, completing 23 of 35 passes for 287 yards in 2010 and 2011. He was moved to wide receiver in 2012 and caught 17 passes from Tyler Wilson, who was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in April. After playing behind two future NFL quarterbacks, Mitchell thought this would be his year. But under first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, he came out of the spring still No. 2 on the depth chart.
N.C. State’s up-tempo, spread offense will be a departure from the pro-style he was used to at Arkansas under Bobby Petrino. But Mitchell felt like he was ready for that change.
“Seeing the history of this offense, watching it when Coach (Matt) Canada was at Wisconsin … you can tell that this offense presents a lot of problems for teams,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people that are defensive-minded, like Alabama head coach Nick Saban, different coaches like that, they have a problem. They don’t want this offense being implemented. That just lets you know right there that it creates problems for defenses.”
Mitchell announced his decision to transfer to N.C. State in late May. Immediately, he got started learning the playbook, wanting to digest it faster than the coaches could get it to him. He says he’s about “70 percent” in terms of knowing what the staff wants him to know.
“To go out there and to step in and be a leader, the only way I could be a leader is for you to know what you’re talking about,” Mitchell said.
That was the fine line he had to walk. Thomas and Stocker were the incumbent quarterbacks, and there were already team leaders. When he was on his visit before he made a decision, he met some of his teammates on offense and texted with them regularly after that. As soon as he got on campus, he tried to do everything he could to get to know his new teammates and start to develop chemistry with his wide receivers.
“Just trying to spend as much time with them as I could, trying to implement myself in every little aspect that they were doing,” Mitchell said. “Even with the guys that come in like the freshmen, I would try to grab them because I was kind of in the same boat that they were, trying to learn a new system and trying to learn it at the same time together while also trying to be a leader with the older guys and not step on anybody’s toes.”
It was a difficult transition for him. At Arkansas, he was a rising fifth-year senior and one of the more respected guys in his locker room. At N.C. State, he’s brand new. There’s also the issue of Thomas and Stocker. Considering he was brought in after the spring game, he knew that those two wouldn’t view his arrival as a ringing endorsement of their ability to run the offense.
Mitchell wants to play, of course. He wouldn’t have gone to N.C. State if he didn’t think he had a good chance to play. But he also knows he’s going to have to work for it.
“Always being respectful, but also going after what you want. I want to help make (Thomas) and all those guys better, but at the same time I have to do what’s best for the team and what I think is best for myself and just go out there and compete and show what I can do,” Mitchell said. “At the end of the day, if I don’t get the job then I know I did my best. It’ll just be up to what Coach (Doeren) thinks is best for the team.”
Doeren has made it clear that he hasn’t made a decision. He even included the freshmen — Bryant Shirreffs and Josh Taylor — in the potential pool of starters. And he says he can’t put a date on when he’ll make that call.
“When you know, you know, and I think it’s their job to show me,” Doeren said. “In a perfect world I would’ve known already, but I don’t. So I’m going to let it go until I definitely can go to bed and wake up a couple times and know that that’s my guy. If that means we’re into game week, we’re into game week. That’s an important decision and that’s a decision that may change over time.”
Doeren has said more than once that he and Canada would be open to the idea of using more than one quarterback, even in the same game, once they’ve gotten a grasp of each one’s strengths and weaknesses. And if he does, it’s almost certain that Mitchell will get to be where he’s wanted to be for the last two years: playing quarterback.
“Just getting back on the field, playing quarterback full-time — it’s been two years now since I’ve been able to just strictly play quarterback,” Mitchell said. “I just miss it, being out there and being able to take command over the offense and make things happen and just get a win for the team.”