"We're going to be aggressive on defense and do what we have to do to force as many turnovers as possible."
Three working dates into their spring practices, Mitchell and the Bulldog defense are again cranking up the aggression. And come Thursday it should be even more on display. See, per rules Mississippi State spent the initial two days without pads; and when the full gear went on Tuesday full tackling was still not allowed.
Now? Well, Coach Dan Mullen has promised a healthy portion of popping for the fourth and final session before the Bulldogs take an extended spring break. There should even be some all-out scrimmage periods Thursday per the coach. Don't be surprised if some of the better licks are laid by #4, as he admits difficulty in checking the competitive fires already.
"Oh yeah, we call it ‘thud up' and it's kind of hard to thud them up sometimes when you're running full speed. You tend to hit a little harder than you intend to! But we try to be smart." Smart, yes; but never shy about sticking when opportunity presents. "Oh no, we want to be aggressive and intimidating and we want to dominate."
Interestingly, though, this particular spring the Other Side is fighting back. Whether encouraged by their obvious own physical development, or benefitting from a couple of seasons' experience in the system, or just plain tired of getting slapped around…the Bulldog offense has been seen giving as good as they take at times.
Mitchell's reaction? "I like that, too! The offense had been kind of passing and seeing them trying to be more aggressive, I like that a lot." Hey, an offense able to match attitudes with this defense should have the physical and emotional potential to put a beating on other people, right?
Speaking of which, Mitchell is being booked as lead Dog in the aggressive pack to be fielded come fall. He is coming of a (to date) career year of 93 tackles as a junior, only two less than in his previous two seasons at strong safety. Though it is always worth noting that ‘strong' and ‘free' are labels of convenience and not restricted roles the way State plays things. Wherever he's lined up though Mitchell has accumulated 188 stops in 37games.
And it isn't impossible to project him hitting 300 by the time he's played his last Bulldog battle. After all, both of the guys who led him on the 2010 team list were linebacker and they are gone on. Since much of the time Mitchell practically is an extra linebacker he should have first shot at picking up the slack left by Chris White and K.J. Wright. Or so the conventional thinking goes.
Mitchell agrees that on the first day of this spring he got a funny feeling lining up and not seeing those familiar digits in front of him. "It was weird, yeah. But we're getting used to it." He disagrees somewhat about the need to up his game to ease linebacker burdens. Mitchell has confidence in the folk competing for those open slots.
"I know we've got some linebackers that can step up for K.J. and Chris. Brandon Wilson is a great leader and he does a great job in the weightroom and the practice field and the meeting room as well. And we've got some leaders on the d-line."
All the same, or not-same as case may be, this should shape up as a stellar season for Mississippi State secondary play. The defensive backfield returns no less than ten safeties or cornerbacks who saw action in 2010, including the complete usual starting lineup and regular nickel back. Mitchell and Wade Bonner top the depth chart at (here we go again) strong and free, but it's a given Nickoe Whitley will be on the field every chance and Dennis Thames is coming on this spring, while former corner Louis Watson is working for his own niche. Safeties Coach Tony Hughes might not have wanted to give up redshirt Matthew Wells to linebackers Coach Geoff Collins, but then Wells is regarded by Mullen as playing something of a hybrid linebacker/safety anyway.
The point being that there is no lack of talent, experience, and depth in this middle portion of the secondary…and that doesn't account for corner slots already well-established as two-deep and looking to be three-deep based on early spring showings. The combined potential is there for all to see, says Mitchell.
"It's good that we've got a lot of guys that have been playing together for a while. And we're going to try to be one of the best secondaries in the country." So, what is left for them to do towards that high goal? "Just making smart decisions, knowing our assignments. Because a lot of times we had m.a.'s last year that messed us up. It's having our eyes in the right spot, being disciplined, communicating."
Hmmm, sounds like a contradiction: how can a group be consistently aggressive and yet rein it all in just that tiny bit to remain in a gameplan? Yeah, not easy to describe much less do, Mitchell agrees. "Sometimes it is hard to be disciplined back there, you get your eyes in the wrong spot and that is one of the biggest mistakes you can make as a defensive back."
Mitchell includes himself in this category, so even as elder Dog he is applying himself to refreshing and reinforcing the finer points of his position. Something else comes with the role of ranking veteran, too: Mitchell is expected, no, demanded to take charge of the entire defensive backfield and set a tone on and off the field. If he practices as if trying to win a job, much less keep one, then the rest of the pack should follow.
So, "I'm working on keeping my eyes in the right spot, breaking on the ball, trying to take as few steps as possible when I break. The things that me and Coach Hughes talk about and try to be better at everything I do." And, he agrees, try to become something of a coach between the lines, too. "Definitely. I'm one of the leaders on defense and I think I've got the most experience playing on the defense."
Defense, offense, and specialists alike will report to the outdoor practice fields around 4:00 Thursday for the last pre-break session. Spring drills resume March 24.