"Right now it's looking good," he says. "I think I did OK in the spring. We executed all our plays, we got better in practice and I don't think we ever took a step back. So I think we had a good spring."
Very good in fact, because in his first college spring camp Mitchell made the most of his new opportunity. He stepped right into the first-team job and practiced like a veteran, just as did true junior Zach Smith at the free safety. By the time camp ended there were none of the pre-spring concerns about just how well Mississippi State was going to fill spots and roles left open by the graduations of Keith Fitzhugh, Derek Pegues, and De'Mon Glanton.
In fact, "I figure we're just as good as those guys," Mitchell proclaims with justified pride. Not that he's running down those alumni safeties, understand; the true soph is simply stating that there won't be any drop-off with he and Smith fully prepared for this season and their chances as starters. Well, there might be one aspect where these kids can't entirely replace their elders. Can Mitchell run his mouth on and off the field as effectively as Fitzhugh?
"I don't know, it'd be tough!" Mitchell laughs. "But I'm trying." Then more seriously, "Yes, I'm trying to be a more vocal leader. Usually I try to lead by example but I'm trying to do more vocally so we can get everybody to where we want to be."
Mitchell is right where he wants to be this summer, taking advantage of both the June and July semesters to tone-up the body and tune-in the mind for coming August camp. As a member of the first-quarter ‘Champions Club' he has set a standard to maintain and even improve, as well as hopefully set an example. So far, so good.
"Everyone that is supposed to be getting bigger and everybody that is supposed to lose weight is losing weight." In Mitchell's case it has been a bit of weight-gaining and he ended last week at an even 200 pounds. That is a bit up from spring when he practiced at 196, or his high school senior scale-reading of 190. Or 195 "It would be up-and-down," he admits. Now consistency is key, and if Mitchell doesn't intend to get very much bigger he certainly has become "a lot stronger" he says. "In high school I couldn't bench more than 230, 240; and I was doing 275 on Monday." With no loss of speed, it is worth noting. If anything Mitchell has gotten quicker on the trigger after a productive spring in this new system.
But not toooo quick. Which might be the bigger issue for this still-developing pup, since he confesses that when put on the field as a true freshman he let both the excitement and the anxiety rush him into doing things…not always the right things.
"This year I've become a lot more patient, let stuff come to me instead of trying to go do a lot. I think that has helped me out a lot. I've gotten stronger, I've gotten faster. My knowledge of the game has grown. So I think all of that has made me a better player."
Coach Tony Hughes has another item that will help Mitchell become an even better player. It's self-control at his position, which is reasonably related to patience. "Coach Hughes has stressed not to have any ‘eye violations'," Mitchell says. While these fouls don't draw a flag from officials, they do produce some sharp squad-room commentary from the coach when his safeties are caught peeking at people and places they aren't supposed to.
"Don't take your eye off your man in man-coverage, try to be disciplined," explains Mitchell. "Because we still had problems with that in spring, every now and then we'd take our eyes off and they'd get away and be open." Even if no pass was caught as a result, it was still a violation. Hughes appreciates aggression from his charges and by no means wants these safeties playing passive. After all, the first rule of a good defense is run to the ball.
"You're trying to make all the plays," says Mitchell. "But you have to realize that you can't make them all and stay with your man. It's pretty tough but it's something you have to work on every day. It's something you have to grow-on. And trust the guys around you."
That part is easier because the two young starting safeties have developed a good working relationship. Besides, Mitchell says, in State's system the strong and free safeties can at times be interchangeable. "Yeah, we can switch-up and it wouldn't make any difference. Zach is smart, he knows the game just as well as I do. And I'm still learning stuff from him, so it's good being back there with him and this being his third year here."
Still both are in their first year in this specific system, and while some things never change—effort mainly--there are finer points to how Hughes and coordinator Carl Torbush like playing defense to learn. The good news at State is the returning Dog defensive backs don't just fit the schemes, they like them too.
"It was fun learning those things," Mitchell says. "We got to change up the defenses and get different players in there in different situations. So it was exciting." And will only get more so with success this fall. Mitchell and Smith also benefit from the return of Wade Bonner to defense; while listed as the second free safety Bonner was more often the backup to both spring first-teammers. True freshman Cameron Lawrence was pushing veteran walk-on safety Emmanuel Gatling by the end of his first spring at strong.
While Mitchell would almost certainly have had a step on all these for the strong job in spring anyway, it helped that he had actual fall experience and 31 tackles to his credit. That was the 12th-most stops on the squad, by the way, which says much for the impact this kid made when given freshman chances. So he doesn't regret not redshirting.
"I'm glad I played, I think that helped me out a lot. It prepared me for the spring, the off-season and the upcoming season." Even the un-fun things were useful learning tools, like that time in the Egg Bowl when Mitchell committed an eye violation and his assigned receiver got loose behind for a touchdown catch. His new coaches don't need to remind him of that, the boys back home in Clarksdale are more than happy enough to bring it up at every chance…another good reason to enjoy summer on campus.
Fortunately that painful lesson will only make Mitchell that much smarter and more focused. Not to mention make him look that much more a veteran to the touted new defensive backs coming to town this summer. In particular Mitchell looks forward to showing a kid like Nickoe Whitley the rookie-ropes. "I can't wait for him to get here so we can start working with him and get him prepared." Wait, you're eager to help younger pups catch up to their elders and even try to take jobs away?
"Yeah, I'm willing to teach them!" smiles Mitchell. Even if it means being mistaken for an upperclassman by a new kid? Sure, he says. This first time he corrected the rookie about his class, but… "Maybe next time I might just go along with it!"