SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
9/06/2006 06:48:00 PM
Houston: Mustain Ready for Launch
Freshman QB Mitch Mustain went 4-for-6 for 46 yards and threw one interception. He also rushed for a score.
If you watched the fourth quarter of last Saturday's USC-Arkansas game, you witnessed one of the more riveting, if bizarre, garbage-time moments in recent memory. Despite their team trailing 44-14 with just eight minutes remaining, 70,000-plus Razorbacks fans were on their feet going crazy. Why? Because, in his first collegiate series, ballyhooed freshman QB Mitch Mustain had just completed a 42-yard pass to fellow freshman and high-school teammate Damian Williams and proceded to score on a four-yard keeper.
Mustain would throw an interception on his next series, and his team would wind up losing 50-14, but the fans had seen enough -- and so, too, apparently, had Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. The next day, Nutt announced what many felt was inevitable: Mustain is the Razorbacks' new starting quarterback. Having lost his job to a freshman for the second straight season, fourth-year junior Robert Johnson is suddenly a receiver. The guy who supplanted him last year, sophomore Casey Dick, is now Mustain's backup. Talk about your dramatic overhauls.
Conspiracy theories abound in Fayetteville regarding Nutt's sudden switcheroo -- that he promised Mustain, last year's USA Today Offensive Player of the Year from nearby Springdale, the starting job back when he signed him; that Nutt knew this was his plan all along and didn’t want to throw his freshman into the fire against the Trojans; that he basically fed Johnson to the wolves to make his decision that much easier. After all, what could he have possibly ascertained from two series of mop-up duty against USC's second-team defense?
"It was a very difficult decision, because Robert Johnson is such a good person," Nutt told me Wednesday. "There just comes a time sometimes where there's a gut instinct -- who's going to put your team in the end zone and who gives you the best chance to win? With the presence of command [Mustain] had with his teammates, it just felt like he was in charge."
There's no question Mustain looked much more comfortable than Johnson running new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's shotgun-spread offense, even scoring his touchdown on a shotgun draw play. There's a pretty good reason for that: Nutt hired Malzahn from Arkansas prep power Springdale -- where he was Mustain's coach. "That's why [Mustain] came in as far along as he did," said Nutt. Since the day Malzahn was hired last December, becoming the rare coach to go straight from high school to SEC coordinator, it was assumed his prodigy would get the call sooner than later. Few, however, would have guessed it to be this soon.
Clearly, Nutt realizes the urgency of his situation. Following two straight losing seasons, his job is on the line if he doesn't kick-start morale in a hurry, and opening with a 50-14 home loss certainly didn't help matters. So, he's pinning his fortunes on one extremely important freshman -- not to mention one particularly valuable high school. In addition to Mustain, two other freshmen from Malzahn's old team, receiver Williams (four catches, 61 yards) and tight end Ben Cleveland (two catches, 24 yards), shined against the Trojans, and another, receiver Andrew Norman, could soon join them. Clearly, the Springdale pipeline represents the Razorbacks' future -- and for Nutt's sake, the future needs to begin as soon as possible.
Seems strange that Arkansas is getting more attention now than they ever did when Clint Stoerner was the quarterback and they were already a very good team. It'll be very interesting to see how this young team progresses throughout this year and in the future. A lot of people picked Arkansas to finish in the top 3 of the SEC West, but right now it seems that the Hogs will have to work just to finish above Alabama (who is still solid, despite what popular opinion seems to be) and Ole Miss, nevermind Auburn and LSU.
Of course he was promised the starting job. He looked OK for a freshman in his first game, but not so awesome that he won the job on merit alone. Hopefully he is mentally tough, because expectations will be sky high. The defenses in the SEC west are no picnic for any QB.
I was at the game (USC fan) and you're not kidding: that stadium erupted when he first trotted on the field. I knew about him from all the recruiting shows, but I had no idea they were going to welcome him like the Irish welcommed Charlie Weis. I admit, even though it was against the backups from my own school, I was applauding with everyone else when he scored that first TD. Of course, I also applauded wildly when we picked him off in the next series...