Ask Bo Levi Mitchell where he is in his college football career compared to this same time last year, and you get an immediate and confident answer.
“A million times better,” Eastern Washington’s senior quarterback said recently in response to such a question. “It’s like night and day, really it is.”
Which might seem like a bit of a stretch, considering Mitchell threw for 3,496 yards and a school record 37 touchdown passes in leading the Eagles to a 13-2 record and an NCAA Division I national championship as a first-year junior transfer last fall.
But try finding a coach or teammate willing to dispute Mitchell’s self assessment and … well, you can’t.
“He’s just light years ahead of last year,” fourth-year head coach Beau Baldwin said of the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, who transferred to EWU from Southern Methodist in the spring of 2010. “You have to remember, when he started his first game for us, he’d only been on campus for six months, and that’s a tough thing for any quarterback.
“But now, he has a much better feel for the offense, he has a better understanding of what we’re trying to do and he operates at a much faster pace – which is what we want.”
Mitchell, who started as a freshman at SMU but suffered an injury mid-way through his sophomore season and lost the starting job, arrived in Cheney saying all the right things. He talked about having played both under center and out of the shotgun formation as the trigger man in June Jones’ spread offense at SMU, and insisted early on that he was comfortable with Eastern’s no-huddle offense.
But the former Katy (Tex.) High School standout struggled at times during the onset of the 2010 season, making some bad reads, throwing several unsightly interceptions and looking a bit confused by the play calls coming in from the sidelines.
“Last year I was thinking about things like ‘How does the snap count go again?’, or ‘Where are the matchups (in the secondary), and which receivers are going to be open?’ ” explained Mitchell, who will make his 16th consecutive start for Eastern on Saturday afternoon, when the Eagles open defensive of their national title with a 4:05 showdown against the University of Washington at Husky Stadium in Seattle.
“But this year, I’m much more confident in what I’m doing, because I’m more familiar with everything – my receivers, my o-line, the playbook. It’s easier for me now to call plays and get us into our offense, and to even change plays without worrying about if I’m right or wrong.”
Mitchell’s improved grasp of Baldwin’s offense has allowed the Eagles to play much faster this fall than they were able to play last season. And that should help keep opposing defenders on their heels and breathing hard.
“We’re able to operate at a much faster tempo, and sometimes snap the ball with 25 or 20 seconds still on the (play) clock,” Baldwin said. “And that’s the way I like to play.”
Mitchell likes playing that way, as well.
“It’s completely different coming with that kind of speed now,” he said, “especially in the first and third quarters when you can tire the (opposing) defense out right away. It’s all about not letting them get comfortable, running things they’re not used to and trying to get them in situations they’re not ready for.
“And playing fast allows us to do that.”
Senior center Chris Powers has also noticed the improvement Mitchell has made since last fall.
“At the beginning of last season, he was still trying to learn all the plays, all the reads and even us, as offensive linemen,” Powers explained. “The first four games were kind of tough for him, but then he started settling in, and you could see him getting better and better throughout the season.
“He got quicker and quicker with everything, and it all culminated in the national championship game where he threw those two (fourth-quarter) touchdown passes to beat Delaware. And he’s picked up right where he left off, a far as I can tell.”
Mitchell was named the Most Outstanding Player in Eastern’s improbable 20-19 title-game comeback win over the Blue Hens, completing 29 of 43 passes for 302 yards and three second-half touchdowns. And the impression he made in front of a national television audience and Pizza Hut Park crowd of over 13,000 in Frisco, Tex., was a lasting one.
During the offseason, Mitchell was named to the 20-player watch list for Walter Peyton Award that is presented annually by The Sports Network to the nation’s top Football Championship Subdivision player. He was also named to several preseason All-American teams and honored as the preseason FCS player of the year by Lindy’s College Football Preview.
To make any of those preseason tributes truly meaningful, however, Mitchell realized he must continue to grow as a college quarterback and eliminate some of the interceptions and fumbles that plagued him periodically last fall.
And to that end, he had dedicated himself to getting in better shape, increasing his mobility in the pocket and improving his consistency.
“Last year was great, but it was still a learning experience for me,” Mitchell said. “This year, being more familiar with everything, it’s all about taking it to the next level.
“And I can’t wait to get started.”