The sophomore wide receiver approached coach Mark Richt about playing "some" defense well before Sanders Commings was suspended two games for a domestic violence/simple battery arrest. Weeks before underclassmen Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders were dismissed for a violation of team rules. Months before Branden Smith was arrested for marijuana possession, an offense that carries a mandatory one-game suspension.
Each blow at the cornerback position elevated the need for Mitchell, who caught 45 passes for 665 yards and four touchdowns last season, to see increasing time on defense.
"This spring he's going to work almost exclusively on defense," coach Mark Richt said. "The goal for him is to be as proficient as a cornerback as he can possibly be and have enough of a working knowledge when they work out in summer and once we start out in camp he'll have a pretty good feel at that position."
Richt didn't rule out Mitchell seeing time on offense in spring drills to "run a route" or to "run a play he already knows." Mitchell knows enough of the offense to get away with spending most of his time at cornerback in the spring.
The goal, Richt said, is to prepare Mitchell to work on his defense in summer workouts, when coaches can't supervise and players lead the drills.
"I don't know what's going to happen in the fall if he'll go exclusively as a defensive back or not," Richt said. "I don't know the answer to that yet, but you can't be in both meetings at the same time. Early on we're going to have to have him help at corner and once Sanders comes back into the fold then I could see the time that he spends on offense may increase."
The situation at cornerback, in terms of depth, is dire. Commings started all 14 games last season – Smith seven. Damian Swann, a sophomore who contributed as a freshman in 2011, was anticipated as a starter heading into this season in nickel situations and to push Smith. Now Swann is currently slated as the No. 1 cornerback for at least the season-opener.
So that leaves Mitchell to help where, and as much, as he can.
"Malcolm's going to play a big role, I think period, at corner regardless of what happened with Branden," Richt said. "He's a very talented football player, we all know he's an outstanding receiver, but he's got some tremendous skills as a defensive back as well."
Mitchell himself doesn't seem to have a preference where he plays. Instead he seems to have an issue with commitment – he wants to play a little bit everywhere. A star on both sides of the ball at Valdosta High, he was recruited by some schools to play receiver and others to play corner, so this is an issue he's been dealing with for some time.
"If I was full-time defense going to any school I would want to play offense, and now I'm here playing offense and I want to play defense," Mitchell said. "Really just to satisfy that hunger, I'll play both."
Now to satisfy a growing problem, he'll play just defense -- at least this spring.
Richt confirms strength and conditioning hires
Two new members of the strength and conditioning staff were announced Monday.
John Thomas, who spent the past 20 years at Penn State, and Sherman Armstrong, a speed and agility specialist, will join the program, Richt said.
Thomas was the 1997 National Colligiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year and is expected to complement the work of Joe Tereshinski, the current Director of Strength and Conditioning.
"Coach (Tereshinski) is kind of a strength, explosive, condition sort of guy while John is more of a high-intensity training guy," Richt said.
Armstrong was the founder and head of Vast Sports Performance in Tampa, Fla., known for his work with speed and agility.
He was a four-time All-American at Illinois and a two-time Olympic Trials finalist in the 400 hurdles.
"One of the things we felt we needed to bolster within our strength and conditioning program was the element of speed and Sherman -- his whole program is built all around it," Richt said. "It's built around strength, speed and quickness. He's an expert on that and now our players are going to have one of the best in the country in that regard in-house, all the time training these guys."
The strength and condition program has seen a massive overhaul this offseason.
John Kasey, who returned to the staff for one season, stepped back into retirement. Former tailback Thomas Brown became the running backs coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after one year as a graduate assistant. Keith Gray, a long time member of the staff, left to work with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
Last season, the first under Tereshinski, saw a shift to heavy weight lifting and more accountability. Once again, the schedule was tinkered with this offseason. Mat drills, an intense cardio and mental workout, returned once a week.
"One size doesn't fit all in strength and conditioning," Richt said. "You've got linemen who need to do certain things, DBs who need to do certain things, linebackers who've got to do certain things, even kickers and punters do things a little bit different. We feel with this new strength staff we're going to be able to cover every single base and every need of every player and generate a lot of excitement throughout our offseason program."
Taking a further look
While bouncing ideas off other coaches at every level of play isn't uncommon, Richt said there was an increased effort to meet with coaching peers this offseason – especially regarding special teams.
"We do it every year, but just want to thank (athletic director) Greg (McGarity) publicly for encouraging – he didn't say there's no budget basically, but we've not been turned down for any request to get better in that way."
The coaching assignments on special teams (listed below) will not change from a year ago, Richt said.
Rather, the focus is to hone the personnel and overall strategy for each unit. Aside from point-after-attempts, the Bulldogs finished in the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference in every special teams category in 2011.
Coaches have come to Athens and Bulldogs assistants have gone on the road to learn.
"You try to find out where there's going to be value," Richt said. "It's better to bring one guy in than to shoot four guys to him. I prefer to bring people in because they're at our place, we can ask anything we want, you can kind of guide them. You go to their place, they may still be working and they say you guys go watch film for a couple hours and then we'll talk about what you saw. If you've got them here, there's no place they can hide. We've had more people come in, which I think is better."
Special teams coaching assignments:
This and that
While backup quarterback Hutson Mason intends to sit this year out to gain an extra year of eligibility, Richt cautions against falling into a "redshirt mode." Richt wants Mason to continue to compete as if he could play in any game. "Certainly he needs to be in position to hold on to the No. 2 spot throughout this spring and throughout the offseason and throughout camp," Richt said. "We have no idea what could happen to (starter) Aaron (Murray), God forbid anything happen to Aaron. … Sophomore wide receiver Chris Conley is still recovering from his January wrist surgery and will be limited in spring drills. "He'll be able to run routes, he'll be able to do some things," Richt said. "I don't know how much contact he'll be able to get." … Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Sterling Bailey is on track to take contact in spring drills, but will also be limited. "Sterling may be able to get some pass rush before it's over with, but he may not be able to get into an 11 on 11 situation," Richt said.