FAYETTEVILLE — Brandon Mitchell was playfully giving teammates an earful Wednesday night, pulling in a pass from quarterback Tyler Wilson and predicting “another touchdown” as he ran through the secondary during pass skeleton drills.
The junior wasn’t done talking on his way back to the huddle.
“This is too easy,” Mitchell said as he jogged by the defensive sideline.
Arkansas opened preseason camp with questions at the receiver position, but may feel a little better more than a week into camp because of Mitchell.
The Louisiana native — who has spent much of his career sitting behind Wilson and Ryan Mallett on the quarterback depth chart — is making his transition to receiver look pretty easy through the first week of preseason camp at his new position. In fact, it hasn’t take long for Mitchell to show the Arkansas coaching staff he can be a factor in a passing attack expected to feature Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg.
“He’s really going to give us some help catching the ball,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said last Sunday. “It’s a big, big target. He’s very athletic and is just … it’s had to fight through that big body. We love what we’re seeing so far.”
The junior has used his quarterback experience to find holes in the defense, his big frame to create space against defensive backs, and his soft hands to pull in pass after pass. He was one of the primary targets during Arkansas’ scrimmage last Tuesday, catching four passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. He’ll have even more opportunities when Arkansas scrimmages in Razorback Stadium at 9 a.m. today.
The Razorbacks opened the month planning to split Mitchell’s time at both quarterback and receiver, but his knack for catching the ball has left him with a full-time receiving role in practices. He still participates in quarterback meetings and early practice throwing sessions, but is relishing the work out wide.
“It feels great to actually really be a contributor,” Mitchell said. “It’s been great being a leader behind Tyler and helping to contribute in the leadership role standpoint as a backup quarterback, but to actually get out there and make plays and make a real difference in the game, I’m really enjoying it.”
It’s a far cry from his first three years on campus, when Mitchell sat on the sideline watching other quarterbacks play. He threw 35 passes in that timespan.
Mitchell said it hasn’t been easy. He thought about transferring elsewhere to get playing time and really considered some options after losing the starting job to Wilson before the 2011 season. But Mitchell said he didn’t want to leave.
“I think it speaks from my upbringing with my parents,” Mitchell said. “Once you start something you have to finish it. You just can’t leave. … I had some opportunities to transfer, but just stuck it out and competed every day.”
He did, however, want to do something. It’s one reason he ventured back to Arkansas’ basketball team after the 2011 football season.
Mitchell averaged 3.5 points, 2.3 rebounds in coach Mike Anderson’s up-tempo system. He also turned in one of the most memorable plays of the season, throwing down a thunderous dunk over a Mississippi State player in Bud Walton Arena.
But Mitchell also wanted to find his way onto the field in football this fall.
“It’s kind of frustrating, you know, knowing that you’re one of the best athletes out there against opponents and on your team also and you’re sitting on the sideline,” Mitchell said. “But that’s something I embraced. It also humbled me. I think it made me a better player sitting behind Tyler. I probably needed to be humbled once I got here, being a starter everywhere you’ve been all your life.”
Wilson could sense Mitchell’s disappointment after a 2011 season in which he appeared in nine games, but completed just 22 of 32 passes for 271 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Mitchell also ran for two more touchdowns.
So he and Mitchell devised a plan after spring ball aimed at helping one of the team’s best athletes get on the field in 2012. They took their idea to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino for approval and Mitchell soon began running routes with receivers during player-led workouts over the summer.
He may not be as polished as other veterans, but Wilson said Mitchell fits in.
“He’s 235 pounds. That’s where you start at receiver,” Wilson said. “So when we’re running the boundary or doing a number of things blocking wise with him, it gives us a lot of benefits there as well as in the passing game. And when he catches, guys bounce off of him rather than him taking a pretty good lick.”
It’s not Petrino’s first experience with a talented athlete who can do a variety of things for a team. Michael Bush sat in the quarterback meetings his first year at Louisville before becoming a full-time running back. Now he’s an NFL veteran.
Petrino said Mitchell was the team’s second-best receiver earlier this week. The proclamation may leave some groaning, considering the questions Arkansas had at receiver this summer. Could it be a good sign if a quarterback who had never played the position is the team’s second-best option?
But it doesn’t take long to watch Mitchell in action to see it’s a compliment about his talents rather than an indictment of any problems. And there’s one more potential perk: Petrino said Mitchell should be valuable as a blocker in the run game.
“He’s a big body,” Petrino said. “He’s smart. He understands coverages. So he knows what holes to get into and how to attack the coverages. The touchdown that he got (Tuesday) was kind of a lot of receivers wouldn’t have known where to go.”
Redshirt freshman Brandon Allen has assumed backup quarterback duties with Mitchell spending his practice time at receiver. There’s a chance Mitchell doesn’t get another snap at the position with Allen performing well so far in practices.
Mitchell said he’s “comfortable with it.” He knew it was one of the potential consequences of his move. He just wants to play and has found a fit at receiver.
“It’s been a little easier transition than I actually thought it could have actually been,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been enjoying it.”