College Sports

Embattled Mitchell downplays criticism

COLUMBIA -- As Blake Mitchell stood on the sideline at Williams-Brice Stadium before last week's season opener, a group of fans heckled and yelled insults at South Carolina's fifth-year quarterback.

That's not unusual, except the heckling was coming from Gamecocks' fans.

"It doesn't surprise me. People are going to be upset," said Mitchell, suspended for the Louisiana-Lafayette game due to excessive summer school absences.

USC linebacker Dustin Lindsey, who was out with a knee injury, said he stood next to Mitchell as "student-section kids" lobbed insults at Mitchell such as "Loser" and "Go to class, Blake."

"It's no big deal," Mitchell said. "I don't let that kind of stuff get to me."

Ranked seventh on USC's career passing list with 4,245 yards as he enters his third year as a starter, Mitchell should be the toast of the town. Instead, the LaGrange, Ga., native has become a lightning rod for criticism among some fans who would like to see Mitchell make better decisions off the field.

Several letter writers to The State chastised Mitchell's parents for criticizing USC officials for failing to communicate with them about their son's absences in a three-hour English course.

Through it all, Mitchell has maintained the same stoicism that has become his trademark. In his first comments Wednesday since the suspension, Mitchell said he was unfazed by the public's negative reaction.

"It is what it is," he said. "Everyone has their own opinion and they're entitled to their opinion."

Lindsey, who is among Mitchell's closest friends on the team, admired the way Mitchell dealt with adversity.

"He's not crying about it. He took it like a man," Lindsey said. "We were on the sidelines, a lot of people calling him names and stuff. He didn't say nothing bad. He didn't retaliate.

"I'm proud of him. I'm sure he's going to come back this week and throw a (heck) of a game."

Mitchell returns this week against Georgia, the school that recruited him after he attended a couple of the Bulldogs' camps. While Mitchell said Georgia offered him a scholarship, Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he did not take any quarterbacks in the 2003 class because David Greene, D.J. Shockley and Joe Tereshinski remained on the roster.

Richt said Mitchell reminds him of another Steve Spurrier-coached quarterback -- Shane Matthews, the SEC's Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991.

"Their throwing motions are fairly similar. I think he's a little bigger than Shane was, but their style of play reminds me of each other," Richt said. "A guy that throws a real smooth pass, real catchable ball and does a real good job of taking direction from coach Spurrier and putting the ball where he wants it."

Mitchell owns an 11-6 record as a starter, but is winless in two starts against his home-state team. In each case, he was hurt by turnovers.

Mitchell completed 22-of-34 passes for 236 touchdowns in 2005, but was intercepted twice in Georgia's 17-15 win.

The right-hander had an efficient passing game (16-of-22 for 156 yards) in last year's 18-0 loss, but his two third-quarter fumbles in Georgia territory killed potential scoring drives.

Mitchell, who grew up closer to Auburn, Ala., than Athens, would like to snap the Gamecocks' five-game losing streak to Georgia.

"It's a big game. We haven't beaten them since I've been here," he said. "It's definitely a big game for us."

It's a big game for Mitchell as well.

He was suspended for last year's Wofford game after his arrest for punching a bouncer in Five Points. Although the charge was later dropped, it took Mitchell seven weeks to reclaim his starting spot from Syvelle Newton.

Mitchell returned to complete 69 percent of his passes for 1,467 yards and 10 touchdowns over the final 18 quarters, including a four-touchdown, MVP-winning performance in the Liberty Bowl.

Mitchell, set to graduate in December with a history degree, was asked whether there was a side of him that fans and the media did not know.

"I am a leader of this team and all the guys believe in me," he said. "They trust me, and I like to think that most of them like to have me out there on the field."

SOUTH CAROLINA (1-0, 0-0 SEC) AT NO. 11 GEORGIA (1-0, 0-0)

• When: 5:45 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.

• TV: ESPN2 (cable channel 28 in Rock Hill)

• Tickets: Sold out