Steve Spurrier has yearned for a quarterback that can lead South Carolina to Southeastern Conference football championships and BCS bowl games.
His ability to mold young quarterbacks into NFL-level talent has been legendary throughout his coaching career.
At Florida, Spurrier sent five quarterbacks to the NFL, including Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. Even at Duke, Spurrier developed Dave Brown, who played 11 seasons professionally, into a legitimate NFL quarterback.
It hasn't been so easy at South Carolina.
Spurrier's inability to lure a big-name high school quarterback to Columbia has been baffling — even to the Head Ball Coach.
“We're sitting around always wondering how come we can't throw the ball up and down the field as well as our teams used to at Florida,” Spurrier said last season. “I thought we could get some guys to do it here and there's just a combination of reasons why we haven't.”
Spurrier's most successful protegee at USC has been Stephen Garcia, who was dismissed from the team a month into his senior season last fall.
Since arriving in Columbia in 2005, Spurrier has signed 10 quarterbacks. None have gone on to play in the NFL.
Connor Mitch, a rising senior at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, is hoping to reverse that trend.
Mitch committed to USC in May, joining a growing list of top high school prospects deciding to verbally commit early. He chose the Gamecocks over dozens of major college teams, including Alabama and LSU.
Is Mitch the best quarterback prospect that Spurrier has attracted to South Carolina?
Spurrier has signed higher-ranked quarterbacks in the past. Chris Smelley was the eighth-ranked pro-style quarterback in 2006 and Garcia was the fourth-ranked dual-threat QB in 2007, according to Rivals.com.
Mitch is just the third four-star quarterback that Spurrier has been able to land at South Carolina. But Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, said Mitch is head and shoulders above Garcia and Smelley.
“Hands down, Connor Mitch is the best quarterback Spurrier has ever recruited to South Carolina,” Farrell said. “I think he's the best pure passer that Spurrier has gotten to South Carolina and he's the most polished quarterback. South Carolina fans are going to love this kid.”
Farrell won't get much of an argument from Wakefield High School coach Rod Sink, who enters his first season as the Wolverines' head coach this fall. Sink has been the offensive coordinator at Wakefield for the past four seasons, and has watched Mitch mature.
“He's a very accurate thrower and he's a leader,” Sink said. “Connor gets into the huddle and he's in charge. He's got a very good arm, but he has excellent touch. I think that's what separates him from a lot of other quarterbacks.”
In the Wolverines' spread offense, Mitch has thrown for 7,164 yards and 88 touchdowns in two seasons, including 3,832 yards and 51 TDs as a junior. But Mitch isn't a product of some pass-happy system. There's more substance than flash.
“There are a ton of system quarterbacks that put up huge numbers but don't project to the next level,” Farrell said. “Mitch isn't one of those guys. He can play any style. He's not just a kid that needs to sit back in the shotgun and make short throws. He can get underneath the center, take a five-, seven-step drop and find his receivers down the field.”
Mitch estimates he received more than 30 offers. Alabama, LSU, North Carolina and North Carolina State pushed hard for him to commit. What impressed Farrell the most about Mitch's recruiting process was that N.C. State quarterback coach Dana Bible wanted the local kid badly.
“Dana's a guy I really respect,” Farrell said. “He's the guy that essentially developed Matt Ryan at Boston College. He knows quarterbacks. When he wants you, you know you're good.”
Mitch's father Bob was a quarterback and safety at Syracuse in the early 1970s. His older brother Ryan was a quarterback at Maryland from 2003-04.
Both agree that Connor is the best quarterback in the family.
“He's bigger, stronger, faster, has a better arm and is smarter than I was coming out of high school,” Ryan Mitch said. “He's light years ahead of where I was when I was in high school. He's legit.”
Bob Mitch has worked on his son's throwing mechanics since he was old enough to hold a football. Unlike a lot of top prospects, Connor doesn't have a quarterback guru behind the scenes working with him on a regular basis. Father and son have a special bond, but Bob isn't one of those “little league” dads who lives his life vicariously through his son.
“We both love football, but if I quit playing tomorrow ,I know he would support me,” Mitch said. “He pushes me to make me better, but he gives me my space when I need it.”
Before each pre-game meal, Bob will send his son a text with several brief points.
“Stand tall in the pocket.”
“Remember to look off the safety.”
“Know when to get down. Don't be a hero. Live to play another down.”
It's just simple, straight forward guidance from someone who has been there. While Syracuse ran an option offense when Bob was playing for the Orangemen, he still could throw a deep ball with the best of them.
“He still has a great arm,” Mitch said. “His throwing motion is perfect. I don't know how much he threw the ball in college. I watched one game and I think they threw it twice.”
Athletics have played a huge role in the Mitch household. All three of Bob and Janet's children have earned Division I athletic scholarships.
And as good as Bob and Ryan were back in the day, and as good as Connor could be in the future, his older sister Brittany, who played basketball at Duke, might be the best athlete in the family.
“People always forget about Brittany,” said Janet Mitch. “Don't let anyone fool you, she's the best athlete in this family.”
Connor Mitch is an admitted football junkie. He spends long hours during the week watching film at home with his father, picking up tendencies of opposing defenses. While his classmates are at lunch, he's in the coaches' offices looking at more film and going over the week's game plan.
“He's a student of the game,” Sink said. “He's always trying to learn something new, always working to get better. He's not afraid of hard work. That's a part of what makes him special.”
Said Bob Mitch: “He'll watch a college football game for a half or so on Saturday, and then I'll turn around and he's back on his computer watching video of the game he just played in or the next opponent.”
Mitch suffered a broken collarbone his freshman season and missed five games. He said it was the longest six weeks of his life.
“It was terrible,” Mitch said. “It football was taken away from me, my life would be pretty boring. I wouldn't know what to do.”
When Mitch verbally committed to South Carolina in May, word quickly spread across message boards in Gamecock nation that the next “quarterback of the future” had arrived.
It's a tag that Mitch doesn't shy away from.
“I want to be that guy, the quarterback of the future for South Carolina,'” Mitch said. “This is something that I've worked for my whole life. I'm going to do everything I can to grind it out and get better each day.”
Part of being successful at South Carolina will be Mitch's ability to withstand the scathing criticism that Spurrier will dish out. The list of quarterbacks that wilted in the face of Spurrier's outbursts is long.
Mitch just shrugs when asked about Spurrier's on-field antics.
“I think it shows his passion for the game,” Mitch said of Spurrier. “He expects a lot out of his players. Some people can take criticism and some can't. I know I can, so I'm not worried about it. In the end I know we want the same thing.”
A sentiment shared by Connor's older brother.
“I think Connor needs someone like coach Spurrier,” Ryan said. “There are times when he's too laid back. He's a little bit cocky, but in a good way. He needs someone that's going to get on him. I think Spurrier will make him a better quarterback.”
There's no questioning Mitch's physical toughness. It was during his freshman season Mitch suffered a broken collarbone when he was sacked. On the next play, he threw a touchdown pass.
“I can't imagine the pain he felt making that throw,” Sink said.
Mitch said Spurrier, Gamecocks' quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus and the depth chart were the major reasons he committed to South Carolina. The final decision came down to South Carolina and LSU.
“When I committed, coach Spurrier was screaming,” Mitch said laughing. “I couldn't understand a word he said. I think he was happier than I was.”
Mitch traveled all over the South last fall, visiting some of the cathedrals of college football. He went to games at LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Florida. He's never seen a regular-season game at South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium. He did attend the Gamecocks' spring game in April.
“I can't imagine what it's going to be like my first game,” Mitch said. “As soon as my heart was set on South Carolina, I went on YouTube and started looking at videos of the players coming onto the field. The music they play, the crowd going nuts. It gave me goose bumps. I can't wait.”
And neither can South Carolina fans.