FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach John L. Smith understands there may have been some surprised fans sitting in Razorback Stadium last Saturday.
They had probably heard Brandon Mitchell, the quarterback, was playing receiver this season. They may have read he was performing well in preseason camp, too.
But when Mitchell jumped in the air and twisted his body to pull down his first catch as a Razorback — an impressive 34-yard reception on a pass from quarterback Tyler Wilson — it became abundantly clear Mitchell was settling into his new role.
“They might have been a little ‘Wow,’” Smith said. “They might have been surprised.
“But from our standpoint, it was not a surprise. We expect him to be good.”
Mitchell turned in quite a debut at receiver in the 49-24 win against Jacksonville State in Razorback Stadium last Saturday. While tight end Chris Gragg carried the load early after Cobi Hamilton went out with an injury, Mitchell got involved in the second quarter and finished with four catches for a game-high 122 yards
His 122-yard performance was the second-best performance among SEC receivers during the opening weekend. Not a bad start for a quarterback who made the move to receiver this summer. He quickly emerged as a viable threat at the position.
“I thought it was unbelievable,” Wilson said of Mitchell’s play. “There’s a time when people need to step up as leaders and Brandon was that guy (Saturday). I thought he stepped up and provided that leadership on the field and on the sideline.”
Wilson and Mitchell first discussed a move to receiver in the offseason, looking to find a way to get the junior on the field this season. Mitchell — who did play basketball once the 2011 football season ended — was tired of watching games from the sideline behind quarterbacks like Wilson and Ryan Mallett. So the two thought his size and athleticism could be a good fit at a position needing help.
It looked like a natural move from day one. It remained apparent Saturday.
Mitchell’s size, speed and athleticism were all apparent on his four grabs. Three of them went for more than 30 yards, including the 34-yard reception in the first half.
“It was just like going up and getting a rebound,” Mitchell said of the athletic catch. “The ball was high, and that’s how Tyler had to throw it because of the coverage.
“You never know when you’re going to get the ball again, so when the play presents itself you’ve got to be at your best.”
While Mitchell didn’t get in the end zone during his debut as a receiver, each of his receptions helped set up scores or were part of touchdown drives. His first catch was followed by Ronnie Wingo’s 3-yard touchdown run, giving the Razorbacks a 28-14 lead. His second started a drive that ended three plays later with Knile Davis’ 5-yard touchdown run, extending the lead to 35-14 late in the first half.
“He made a bunch of big plays for us,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “I thought he had real good leadership on the sideline and out there on the field. He stood out and made a couple great plays.”
Mitchell, a Louisiana native whose entire family was in town and attended the game because Hurricane Isaac took aim at the Gulf Coast, said he was anxious to get the first start under his belt Saturday. He didn’t get any sleep the night before the game because of the anticipation, but it didn’t affect the way he played in the opener.
While it wasn’t perfect — Mitchell did have one dropped pass in the win — he was happy with his successful debut as a receiver.
“I didn’t really expect to get that many yards, but Cobi went down, and the opportunity presented itself,” Mitchell said. “I just wanted to make plays.”
He also set the bar high for the rest of the season. Hamilton will return to the lineup this week and is expected to remain the No. 1 option, while tight end Chris Gragg will catch plenty of passes as well. But the Razorbacks will continue to expect more from Mitchell as he continues to progress at his new position.
Mitchell does, after all, have just one game as a receiver under his belt.
But Smith said there won’t be any surprises now, saying Mitchell showed anyone wondering that he actually is a “legit” receiver who has a big role in the offense.
“Good outing for a guy his first time out of the block as a wideout, huh?” Smith said.