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Lobo football: UNM prepares Mitchem to start at QB

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This time, at least, Bob DeBesse entered game week knowing what his options are at quarterback.

During his 23-game tenure as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at New Mexico, that hasn’t always been the situation.

Sunday, the day after the Lobos’ 66-42 loss to Colorado State, DeBesse learned that starting quarterback Cole Gautsche would not be available this week. Gautsche will miss both of UNM’s remaining games with concussion symptoms stemming from a blow to the head sustained against CSU.

But at least the rest of the depth chart at QB remains unchanged.

Barring something totally unforeseen – remember 2010, when Lobos backup quarterback Brad Gruner sliced open a finger carving a Halloween pumpkin? – DeBesse knows junior quarterback Clayton Mitchem will start Saturday at No. 15 Fresno State. He has no doubt that junior walk-on David Vega is No. 2.

After Tuesday’s practice, DeBesse was asked how and to what degree UNM’s offense would change with Gautsche out and Mitchem in.

That’s a question, he said, that may not have a definitive answer until Thursday night. Each practice this week will be filmed and reviewed before Saturday’s ready list is finalized.

Without Gautsche, DeBesse said, that list probably will have to be trimmed.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “The menu probably can’t be as big (as it would have been with Gautsche). But I think anybody in the country would say that if they had a backup quarterback in.”

UNM backup quarterback Clayton Mitchem (12) is the No. 1 quarterback for the Lobos for their final two games of the season. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

UNM backup quarterback Clayton Mitchem (12) is the No. 1 quarterback for the Lobos for their final two games of the season. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

It does help, DeBesse said, that Mitchem and Vega have similar skills and that one game plan likely will fit both. That hasn’t quite been the case this year with Gautsche and Mitchem, and certainly wasn’t the situation last season with Gautsche and B.R. Holbrook.

“When we’re talking about Clayton and his skill set, we’re probably talking about David, too,” DeBesse said.

It helps, as well, that DeBesse knows (again, knock on wood) that he has two healthy quarterbacks.

As the Lobos began preparation for Utah State last month, Gautsche was questionable with a knee injury, Mitchem with concussion symptoms. Early that week, it appeared Vega might get the start.

All three quarterbacks wound up playing in a 45-10 loss to USU.

Last season, Holbrook and Gautsche both were questionable for Fresno State, each having experienced concussion symptoms in recent games.

They both played against the Bulldogs – and both exited with injuries, leaving then-sophomore Quinton McCown to finish up in a 49-32 defeat.

McCown again will be the emergency No. 3 for UNM (3-7 overall, 1-5 in Mountain West play) against 15th-ranked Fresno State (9-0, 6-0) on Saturday.

Mitchem won’t step on the field in Fresno as an unknown quantity, to either team. He has played in nine of UNM’s 10 games, thrown 57 passes and carried the ball 40 times.

He actually has started five games this season, though Gautsche also played in four of those and in most cases took the majority of the snaps.

Mitchem played the entire game in the Lobos’ 42-35 overtime victory over UTEP on Sept. 7, throwing for 88 yards and running for 51 and two touchdowns.

Fresno State defensive coordinator Nick Toth told the Fresno Bee he thinks Mitchem presents more problems than Gautsche would have.

“I think they’ve become more dangerous because (Mitchem) throws the ball a lot better,” Toth said. “He’s a faster kid, more athletic.”

Rest assured, DeBesse would rather have a healthy Gautsche available to run UNM’s triple option. But his evaluation of Mitchem dovetails to some extent with Toth’s.

“We knew coming in,” DeBesse said, “that (Mitchem’s) strength was going to be being able to throw the ball. And I think he’s also demonstrated, (though) not necessarily in the triple-option game, an ability to run, escape.

“It’ll be interesting. … Nobody likes to get the opportunity this way (through an injury to a teammate), but Clayton’s excited about it.”

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