Mitchell Now Has Opponents Worried, Not Coach

FAYETTEVILLE — Marcus Harrison went down, injured because of a bum knee, and Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring worried.

No, take that back. He was petrified.

Petrified at the thought of throwing sophomore Ernest Mitchell into a starting role at defensive tackle against Alabama. Mitchell had shown some improvement in practice, some attitude adjustment since struggling as a freshman. But nothing drastic. Nothing that would soothe Herring's nagging concerns.

Defensive end Antwain Robinson saw the skepticism engulf Herring's face.

"Coach (Herring) didn't believe he could hit his gaps," Robinson said.

Just three weeks have passed, but the doubt is gone.

Playing 42 snaps more than in any other game of his career, Mitchell made five tackles in Arkansas' 24-23 double-overtime victory on Sept. 23. Fourteen days later, Mitchell split time with a healthier Harrison and recorded two tackles for losses, including a sack, in a 27-10 upset at previously No. 2-ranked Auburn.

At this time last fall, Mitchell had difficulty keeping up in practice. The 6-foot-2, 296-pounder repeatedly frustrated Arkansas defensive line coach Tracy Rocker with his inconsistency in daily workouts. He lacked concentration. He validated Herring's views.

"My mindset wasn't good at all last year," Mitchell said. "I came out to practice every day, and I just wasn't ready to give my full effort. I guess I was just getting used to my surroundings."

Rocker understands that. He doesn't think it should've affected Mitchell's play. But he comprehends that times initially were rough for the defensive tackle everyone jokes about being "so country."

Steadily, though, Mitchell's habits improved. He saw action in nine games last season, building up Rocker's trust as the season progressed.

Most importantly, he committed to increasing his football intelligence, on and off the field. He showed up early, working with Harrison on moves and assignments. He asked more questions. He studied film. Rocker began noticing the type of work ethic that turned him into the 1988 winner of both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Trophy.

"I think it's part of growing up," said Rocker, an Auburn graduate. "What's amazing is he's playing harder. He's got the trust of his teammates and his coaches now."

Mitchell's teammates had warmed to him long before Herring and Rocker became confident in playing him. His personality is playful, and he's always willing to listen. Not what one would expect from a large, imposing lineman who likes to sport a scowl on game days.

"He's big and looks intimidating," Robinson said. "But, he's just real playful."

Arkansas' opponents aren't finding Mitchell as fun. Mitchell's emergence has added another option to arguably the strongest part of the Razorbacks defense.

Now, with Harrison nearing full strength, Rocker can shuffle his linemen in and out, always keeping fresh legs on the field at defensive tackle.

"We'll have a better rotation now," Mitchell said. "With Marcus back, I know I won't play as much, but I'm sure I'll still play some."

Rocker nodded his head when asked about that. Sure, Harrison is the starter when healthy. But the days of fearing the downs when No. 90 takes the field are gone.

For Herring. For Rocker. For any of Mitchell's teammates.

"Ernest pushes me every day," Harrison said. "I think Ernest is at the spot now where he knows what he needs to do and how to prepare and focus for the game. And everything is going well."

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