RALEIGH — Brandon Mitchell and Lance Ray will be together on the same football field Saturday just like they thought they would be five years ago at Arkansas when the two became friends, or more like brothers as Mitchell describes it.
Well, almost like they thought it would be. The plan changed after two years together in Fayetteville, Ark. Instead of an SEC farewell with the Razorbacks, the former teammates will be on opposite sides in a North Carolina reunion Mitchell, the quarterback at N.C. State, and Ray, a receiver for East Carolina.
Its funny how it worked out, how we ended up in the same state at different schools, said Ray, a fifth-year senior at ECU.
Weve been through a lot, but this is a chance for both of us to make the most of one last opportunity.
It has been a dream season for Ray, a 6-foot-2 receiver from Quincy, Fla., and the Pirates. ECU is 8-2 and likely on its way to the Conference USA championship game. The Pirates already whipped one team from the Triangle, a 55-31 win at North Carolina on Sept. 28, and would like to bookend their nonconference season with another over the Wolfpack.
Ray, who left Arkansas after the 2010 season, spent one season at Northwest Mississippi Junior College before joining ECU in 2012.
He spent much of his first season in Greenville as a kick returner. His role has expanded this season in the Pirates explosive offense.
Ray, who has 26 catches for 207 yards on the season, had his best game five catches, 84 yards and two touchdowns in the route of UNC.
Im really happy for him, Mitchell said. Hes been patient and waited his turn, and its great to see his success.
Mitchell knows patience
Patience is one of Mitchells favorite words. It has been a virtue and a curse for the Wolfpack quarterback.
There was always someone in front of Mitchell at Arkansas. The two starters he backed up, Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson, are in the NFL.
He switched to receiver last season, just to get on the field. After a coaching change at Arkansas, Mitchell knew he wouldnt win the starting job.
He graduated with a business marketing degree in the spring. First-year N.C. State coach Dave Doeren hired former Razorbacks strength coach Jason Veltkamp, who recommend Doeren give Mitchell a chance.
N.C. State was Mitchells chance at a fresh start, a chance for all his patience to pay off. Then the first foot injury came in the season opener after only three drives, two of which went for touchdowns.
Then the losses piled up, and finally a second injury for Mitchell. But he has stayed positive and is still optimistic about his lone season at N.C. State. He doesnt see just two games to play out the string; he sees an opportunity to win his final two college games.
Ive had to be patient my whole career, Mitchell said. I just look at it as another hurdle to get over.
Losses mount, but Mitchell still smiling
Mitchell has the type of amiable personality to handle a frustrating season. His disposition hasnt changed after six straight losses, he still has his smile.
I have to be positive out here with the guys, Mitchell said. I cant let them see me down going into the last two games of my career.
I dont have a lot of time to mope around, I just have to try to go out and have fun.
Doeren expects Mitchell to start against the Pirates. Mitchell missed last Saturdays loss at Boston College with an ankle sprain.
He missed five games earlier in the season after breaking a bone in his left foot. In total, Mitchell has been able to start and finish one game this season.
Mitchell has added a rushing dimension to Doerens offense, with 172 yards and touchdown in five games, but he has only thrown for one touchdown and 499 yards.
The injuries and time off have stunted Mitchells progress, Doeren admits, but it hasnt deterred Mitchell.
Brandon is a very spiritual kid, Doeren said. Some people say it, That things happen for a reason, but Brandon actually believes it.
I know he wants to play well this week. I know its really important to him.
Mitchell grew up in a big extended family in Amite, La., which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. His dad, Bobby, is one of 16 siblings. His mom, Margaret, is one of six.
Ray became part of Mitchells extended family when the two were roommates for two years at Arkansas.
They will spend some time with Mitchells family in Louisiana after the season ends and then they will go down to Florida together to hang out with Rays family.
The result of Saturdays game, whichever way it goes, will be discussed.
There will be time for some trash talk, Mitchell said.
But that will be after Saturdays game. The end is almost here, the kind Ray and Mitchell had always hoped for, even if its on different teams.