By Phil Anastasia
Damon Mitchell was a sophomore with zero experience at quarterback when Tim Watson, his new coach at Cedar Creek High School, pulled out an old magazine.
Darren McFadden was on the cover. He was wearing No. 5. He was playing for Arkansas.
"Coach asked me, 'Do you want to play quarterback?'" Mitchell recalled. "I was like, 'Quarterback? I'm a running back.'
"Then he pulled out this magazine with Darren McFadden wearing No. 5 and running the Wildcat (offense). He said, 'I want you to be like him.'"
Mitchell wore No. 5 during his career at Cedar Creek. On Wednesday, he signed with Arkansas.
Mitchell's decision echoed of that meeting in the summer of 2010 because it was inspired by the same thing: A vision of the future.
"His ceiling as a quarterback is awesome," Watson said of Mitchell after the signing ceremony in the lobby outside the Cedar Creek gymnasium. "He wants to be the best quarterback he can be."
Mitchell, an Inquirer first-team All-South Jersey selection, chose Arkansas after what he described as a "very hard" recruiting process.
Mitchell committed to Georgia Tech in July. He almost immediately began to worry that the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense would stifle his development as a quarterback, Watson said.
"It was a splinter in his mind, and it grew and grew," Watson said.
Mitchell visited Wisconsin in the fall. The Badgers' coach, Bret Bielema, was hired by Arkansas in December. Soon afterward the Razorbacks began their pursuit of the 6-3, 205-pound athlete, one of the most productive dual-threat quarterbacks in state history.
"Coach Bielema and I developed a relationship," Mitchell said.
Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney visited Mitchell at Cedar Creek in mid-Janaury. Then Bielema visited Mitchell at his home a few days later.
"He brought his whole offensive staff," Mitchell said. "That told me how much they wanted me as a quarterback."
Mitchell visited Arkansas last weekend. He said he knew before he left the campus in Fayetteville that he would sign with the Razorbacks.
"I felt it in my heart," Mitchell said. "It felt like this place, like Cedar Creek High School."
Mitchell also seriously considered Rutgers. Watson said Rutgers could have been Mitchell's choice if he had not become enamored of Arkansas during his visit.
Mitchell believes he can develop into a top-flight quarterback at Arkansas, which plays in the Southeastern Conference's West Division with national powers such as Alabama and Lousiana State.
"It's going to force him to be the best he can be," Watson said of the competition. "He's not a kid who backs down from that."
Mitchell blossomed as a quarterback as a senior. He passed for 2,027 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 1,025 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Mitchell has the look of the latest fad in quarterback play, ignited by young NFL stars Robert Griffin III, Colin Kapaernick and Russell Wilson.
"There's no better time than right now to be a quarterback and entering college and be that type of athlete," Watson said.
Watson said that "by coincidence" he found that old magazine with McFadden on the cover last week.
"Not to be cheesy but it kind of made me feel this was meant to be," Watson said.
Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at firstname.lastname@example.org or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.