Two weeks ago, Maryland's starting quarterback job was expected to boil down to either two sophomores or a highly rated incoming freshman. Ryan Mitch was little more than an afterthought after a poor spring practice, during which Coach Ralph Friedgen repeatedly said he was "lost."
Now, two weeks from the season-opening Northern Illinois game, the quarterback position remains officially open and Friedgen has called Mitch's improvement one of the biggest surprises of preseason camp. Mitch, Jordan Steffy and Sam Hollenbach are "2a, 2b and 2c," Friedgen said, behind likely starter Joel Statham.
Today's 4 p.m. scrimmage could determine if anyone can catch Statham, who has consistently performed well except for an interception-prone spring game. During summer camp, Mitch, a redshirt freshman, used the fact that few had faith in him as motivation.
"You always have high expectations for yourself and never want to be the guy left out," Mitch said. "But that just gave me the fire to go out and show them [outsiders, not coaches]." Redemption has been a common theme in the 19-year-old's career. In his first varsity start as a sophomore at DeMatha High, Mitch threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. DeMatha coaches said Mitch's spirits dropped. DeMatha lost the game. But soon afterward, Mitch declared, "That will never happen again."
DeMatha won its next 22 games with Mitch at quarterback. "He fights back," said Chris Baucia, DeMatha's offensive coordinator. "The journey to become a good quarterback is a tough road."
Mitch clearly has found smoother pavement. His play is such a contrast to his spring performance that Friedgen said this week, "I wonder if he had something on his mind in the spring."
Mitch said he had a long talk with his mother after spring workouts and decided, "You've got to grow up some time." He watched portions of the spring game as many as 15 times and concurred with coaches: He wasn't reading the safeties' positioning and instead was consistently throwing into double coverage. His timing was a bit late on occasion. He missed picking up a blitz here and there.
The safeties "tell the truth about everything," Mitch said. "It's so much easier than going out there, picking a man out and seeing if he's open. It makes it a lot simpler, and you don't have the big man in your ear as much."
Scott McBrien, the Terps' quarterback the past two seasons and now a Green Bay Packer, also is a DeMatha graduate. But no DeMatha quarterback won more in high school than Mitch, who posted a 29-4 record and was the only sophomore to start at quarterback during Coach Bill McGregor's tenure of more than two decades.
"If you said Scotty McBrien, starting quarterback at Maryland, when he came out of high school, people gave you a double-take," McGregor said. Mitch "is a bigger, stronger version of Scotty McBrien, but he's still a baby. . . . To even be in position to be a backup is incredible."
McBrien and Mitch were roommates last year and Mitch tries to pattern himself after McBrien by being a quiet leader. The 6-foot-1, 217-pound Mitch is pleased with how he is progressing toward winning the backup job, but acknowledged that Statham is ahead in certain areas.
"His timing right now with guys," Mitch said. "He knows where they are going to be and when they are going to be there."
Mitch is aware of other aspects he needs to improve, namely not letting one bad play affect subsequent plays and picking up blitzes more effectively.
"It's not about playing time," Baucia occasionally tells Mitch. "It's about mastering the trade."
Notes: Gator Bowl President Rick Catlett said bowl officials have begun "conceptual discussions" with the ACC about eliminating the system in which bowls select ACC teams based on draft slots. Catlett instead prefers a format in which bowls would choose ACC teams based on which matchups make the most sense to bowl officials.
In a case in which a team is coveted by more than one bowl, Catlett said the conference office could be the tiebreaker. Currently, six bowls are obligated to select ACC teams. The Bowl Championship Series selects the conference champion, while the Gator Bowl and Peach Bowl have the next two selections, respectively.