2012 Next Big Thing: Malcolm Mitchell

ATHENS - This past spring Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was asked if his unit would use three wide receiver sets this season or potentially employ more two tight ends.

He answered quickly and with a question of his own.

"Where's Malcolm Mitchell playing?" he asked rhetorically.

That's a good question, one that many would like to have the answer for. But if the Bulldogs offensive coordinator is also wondering, even if half-jokingly, then who does know the answer?

Mitchell moved to cornerback this spring after a successful freshman campaign playing wide receiver.

The Bulldogs need help in the secondary due to depth issues and suspensions to start the season. But truthfully, this whole idea was the brainchild of Mitchell, who has been torn over which side of the ball he likes more since his early high school days.

Mitchell himself responds to questions with, you guessed it, questions of his own. "Honestly I mean as far as me playing, which one will I play the most?" he asks.

"I really don't care. It could be offense, it could be defense, it could be full-time, it could be part-time. I knew coming in I wanted to play both regardless of how it was worked out."

A 6-1, 184-pound native of Valdosta, Mitchell was granted his wish to try out corner after approaching coach Mark Richt in January. His performance in spring practice proved he could hang with the defensive backs. He was plenty good enough to be used on defense, even while looking green as he first began to comprehend the terminology and playbook.

"On the first day we talked about how the terminology was totally different," said safety Connor Norman. "It takes a little while to pick up on that and kind of figure it out. It's a lot different than playing receiver. I mean he's got great instincts, though, so it looks like it's coming really naturally to me."

Mitchell's length, height, speed, instincts and ball skills combine to create the prototypical corner. And that's what Georgia needs this season, especially in the early portion of the schedule, when starters Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are both expected to serve suspensions.

His upside on defense is exciting to think about. But what exactly is the offense going to miss while Mitchell is entertaining this fancy new position?

Mitchell's overall stats in 2011 were impressive enough. Despite missing three games due to injury, he was second on the team with 45 catches and 665 yards.

But digging deeper, Mitchell was one of the more important players on the offense a season ago.

He led the team in catches in six of the 11 games he played. Five times he led the way in receiving yards.

In four games Mitchell averaged more than 20 yards per catch, evidencing his ability to make big plays. On seven other occasions, Mitchell averaged less than 17 yards per reception, but hauled in tough, possession-type catches necessary to keep drives going.

In other words, Mitchell was the all-around package at wide receiver. He could hit it big for a long touchdown, like his 51-yarder against Boise State. Or when limited by coverage, he showed he could make the tough grabs underneath, like when he hauled in seven catches in the Outback Bowl.

Can he be as effective on offense while also playing defense? Will he even be playing offense?

"I hope so," quarterback Aaron Murray said.

Murray, who connected with Mitchell on four of his 35 touchdown passes a year ago, doesn't think Mitchell will experience any problems playing both ways, at least not mentally.

"I know he'll be ready no matter what," Murray said. "He knows the plays still, and he knows all the routes. He knows the footwork. He knows the yardage (on routes)."

Mitchell can take steps to prepare mentally. He can study both playbooks and watch film until his eyes are blurry. The physical side of things, however, will be just as important in determining how much Mitchell can and will do.

Early on during this process, Mitchell was reminded that former Georgia star Champ Bailey often played 100 snaps a game when he played offense, defense and special teams.

Mitchell's response?

"I want 101," he said. "Of course no one could ever be like Champ Bailey. He was a great player here, but I'd like the opportunity to do some of the things he did here."

During games, cramping or fatigue could cost Mitchell playing time or hinder the snaps he does receive. To avoid that, Mitchell took the necessary steps in the weight room this offseason to get in better shape. And he also gave up something very important: Starburst jelly beans.

"I will put in the work to make sure I will be able to physically withstand it all," he said.

This summer during workouts, Mitchell had no problem juggling two roles. Dividing up when he played offense and defense for 7-on-7 drills was an easy choice out on the practice fields.

"If we have enough DBs out there, he'll just move over to receiver, and if there are not a lot of DBs out there, he'll play DB," Murray said. "He just goes back and forth, pretty much."

And that could be the way the coaching staff figures out how to use him this season – wherever he's needed most at one particular time or another. That seems to appease Mitchell, who is chasing some sort of quasi football satisfaction. It's almost as if he couldn't fully enjoy success on offense because he spent time and energy thinking about what he was missing on defense.

"When it came down to it I thought I'd be satisfied with catching touchdowns, but the more I played the game, the more I wanted to do both," he said. "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. Really just to satisfy that hunger, I'll play both."

Perhaps the best way to answer Bobo's question of where Mitchell is playing is with, you guessed it, a question of our own.

Does it really matter?

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