RALEIGH – Brandon Mitchell threw three passes and played just 15 snaps before going down to a broken left foot in N.C. State’s season opener.
His reward for fighting back to return to the Wolfpack lineup? A matchup with No. 3 Florida State and the Seminoles’ star freshman quarterback Jameis Winston.
“This has been the game that’s been circled for me to get back,” Mitchell said. “So I’ve been preparing for this moment since (the injury). I think I’m ready for it and when the moment presents itself, I just have to seize it.”
Mitchell at least figures he’s prepared for Saturday’s trip south for the Wolfpack (3-3, 0-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). The fifth-year senior, who turns 23 in January, played quarterback and receiver with the Razorbacks. He saw action against top-10 opponents Alabama, LSU and South Carolina during his time in the Southeastern Conference, as well as against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl after the 2010 season.
He mentioned those experiences when asked about the challenge of playing the Seminoles (6-0, 3-0), who won at Clemson in a weekend romp that has made FSU the favorite to win the ACC championship.
Mitchell joined the Wolfpack in time for preseason camp, then beat out Colorado State junior transfer Pete Thomas for the starting job. His athleticism makes him the right fit for first-year coach Dave Doeren’s no-huddle attack, which utilizes the quarterback in the running game. The 6-foot-4 quarterback also got enough size (239 pounds) to handle the hits that comes with the job.
He’ll have no time to ease into things. Florida State ranks third nationally in scoring defense (12.3 points per game) and tied for sixth in total defense (285 yards).
“He’s a big guy,” FSU defensive end Christian Jones said. “He’s mobile. He’s a solid quarterback, but I feel (with) what we’ve got in this week we’ll be able to hold on against him.”
N.C. State has managed only a glimpse of its offensive potential with Mitchell at quarterback.
Mitchell guided the Wolfpack on a 65-yard touchdown drive to start the year, then a 75-yard drive for another touchdown that had N.C. State up, 14-0, on Louisiana Tech less than six minutes into the season.
But Mitchell was stopped on a third-and-one keeper to end the third series and hasn’t played since. By halftime, he was watching from the sideline while leaning on crutches, facing surgery and an absence expected to last four to six weeks.
Saturday’s trip to Tallahassee will mark seven weeks since the injury.
In Mitchell’s limited work, he completed all three of his passes for 93 yards and ran five times for 19 yards.
Doeren had hoped Mitchell would be ready for the Syracuse game on Oct. 12, but he wasn’t quite ready to return. Mitchell said his foot was sore after practices leading up to the Syracuse game. Doeren said he could tell from watching Mitchell’s facial expressions during those workouts that he wasn’t ready. Now he sees a player eager to take the field for the final games of his college career.
“There’s not a single play we’re going to run that we don’t talk to him about first,” Doeren said. “Every single one is, ‘Coach, I’m good, I feel great.’ And that’s kind of what you’re looking for.
“As a quarterback, so many of your movements aren’t scripted. Things just happen where you’ve got to run, you’ve got to go left or right or backwards or 45 degrees or turn the other way. I wanted to make sure he could do all that without thinking about his foot.”
Mitchell said he’s pain-free now, though he’s still focused on icing his foot and doing additional rehab work. The next question is how his foot will hold up to the pounding that comes with playing a game against the nation’s third-ranked team.
“Right now, I’m going into my fifth year,” Mitchell said, “so I feel like I should be able to handle it by now. Just trying to be more mature, be a leader out there with the team and not press too much and try to make too many plays, but let the plays come to us.”