Marvin Mitchell: This Sleeper is a Keeper

Finding "a sleeper" is the term used to describe a prospect that has more ability than publicity, more potential than credentials, more game than fame, but in the case of Norfolk, Va., linebacker Marvin Mitchell, it might be more accurate to say he's in a state of cryogenically induced slumber, a deep level of suspended animation awaiting the fall thaw.

That's when he'll step on the field and into the limelight as a contender for playing time at middle linebacker for the Tennessee Volunteers.

Such a scenario would have seemed absurd last fall when Mitchell was going into his senior season at Lake Taylor High School rated Virginia's No. 38 prospect and entertaining the idea of signing with a Division-II football program. Even his high school head coach, Hank Sawyers, was confused as to why more schools weren't calling to inquire about the 6-3, 235-pound linebacker with 4.6 speed.

"I thought he could play and I didn't know what was going on," Sawyer confessed. "I started questioning my own ability to evaluate players. I knew what I was seeing at games and he almost signed with a 1AA school and a couple of other smaller schools. I said: ‘Son, trust me on this, don't sign, just wait until I can put this film together and get it out.'"

Several big-time schools had seen film of Mitchell from his sophomore and junior seasons, but that was when he played outside linebacker and opponents avoided him like dental check-ups. Plus, he may have appeared to some scouts as too big for outside linebacker and too small for a defensive end — a classic tweener.

But there was a plan in motion that would eventually send the MItchell's stock soaring and home crowds roaring. As a senior, he moved to middle linebacker where his size was imposing and where he was free to pursue the ball and rely on his acute instincts.

"Because he played outside linebacker, teams saw him on film and thought he was a tweener," said Sawyers. "Anytime you're playing outside linebacker you only get a third of the plays run your way, so you're not getting action every play. When he moved inside he just started making plays sideline to sideline. Seldom do you find a kid that can move from outside to inside and make that kind of impact for you. He started intimidating backs. You've got a linebacker that can run a 4.6 with his size, the backs started running away from him. But when you play inside they can't run away from you."

There was no place to run without running into Mitchell who compiled 131 tackles, including 18 in one game against Booker T. Washington as a senior. That nearly doubled his 67 tackles as a junior. He also had five sacks, four caused fumbles, two fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown and two blocked punts. On one of those blocked punts, he also recovered the ball and took it to the end zone.

There was no place to pass over the middle either, as the mobile Mitchell intercepted six throws and returned two for TDs. When he wasn't picking off passes, Mitchell was hauling them in at tight end. As a senior, he caught 29 passes for 500 yards and 12 touchdowns. During his junior season, Mitchell caught 35 passes for 497 yards and nine touchdowns. This was all accomplished for teams that averaged under six wins per season during his three years as a starter and didn't make the playoffs.

Once the film on Mitchell went out the calls starting coming in as schools saw his potential as a run-stuffing middle linebacker with ball-hawking ability.

"He could do some things with the ball," Sawyer said. "West Virginia wanted him at tight end and so did Boston College. West Virginia was on him the entire time, but they were trying to keep it a secret. Virginia Tech and Maryland started calling him. Penn State, I don't know what happened to them. I'm sure he's better than any linebacker they signed. As matter of fact, I know he is."

Tennessee had interest in Mitchell as well, but the Vols had lost contact when he changed his phone number. Fortunately, UT assistant Larry Slade remembered Mitchell and had been trying to convince the Vol coaching staff that he was worth the gamble.

"What happened was that he got his phone number changed and we kind of lost contact," said Sawyer. "But Lawrence Slade stayed on him because he knew what kind of player he was. He just had to convince the people in Knoxville that I've got a sleeper here that you're going to be surprised by. When they saw the film on him, they all agreed."

If the UT coaches weren't convinced when they saw Mitchell on film, they were more than satisfied when they saw him in person on his official visit and discovered that he was pushing 6-foot-4 with room to grow. You see, Mitchell didn't turn 17 until Oct. 24 of last year.

"He's a sleeper no doubt about it," said Sawyer. "I think what happened, too, is that when you take a kid nearly 6-4 and 235 put him in that stadium and the coaches got a chance to take a look at him, I think they were sold then. When he gets there he'll be the tallest middle linebacker they've got."

Apparently, the UT coaches were so convinced that Mitchell was their man for the middle they may have backed off Dayton Beach, Fla., phenom Buster Davis, a middle linebacker who was rated one of the top 100 players in the nation.

With that said, it's not clear if the Vols offer to Mitchell only became official after Parade All-American linebacker Ahmad Brooks, of Virginia Beach, Va., announced for the University of Virginia. If that's the case, Sawyer doesn't feel the Vols lost anything by getting Mitchell instead of Brooks.

"I'd put him up against Ahmad Brooks any day," Sawyer said. "I think he's a little better. Brooks is more of an outside linebacker. Mitchell can overcome some mismatches at middle linebacker with his ability to cover."

Mitchell is also fully qualified with a 3.2 grade point average and a qualifying test score while Brooks has a lot of academic ground to make up to become eligible.

In terms of being ready to play early, Mitchell will need to add some strength although his current 330 bench press and 420 squat are respectable.

"He's not a weak kid," said Sawyer, "but going on those visits afforded him the opportunity to see where he needed to be on the weights. He will make some noise in Knoxville quickly. He'll come ready to play. He's a student of the game. I teach my linebackers to call the defenses about 95 percent of the time. He calls the defenses when they come out of the huddle."

Even with outstanding size, speed and football insight, Sawyer thinks Mitchell's greatest strength on the field is his ability to move laterally along the line of scrimmage and strike the ball carrier with authority. In one game during his junior season, Sawyer said Mitchell came from his outside linebacker, on a fourth-and-one, to chase a play wide to the other side of the field and tackled the ball carrier for a two-yard loss.

The versatile Mitchell also served as deep snapper for his punting team and averages 13 points and 14 rebounds a game as a forward in basketball. He runs the 400 meters in 55 seconds and throws the shot put 47 feet for the Lake Taylor track team.

Additionally, Sawyer said Mitchell has great hands and he believes that's something that will bolster Tennessee's defense. Put it all together and the unsung Mitchell may have the right stuff to make an early contribution for the Vols and surprise some of the recruiting experts in the process.

"I think he will," Sawyer said. "Plus, the fact he had six interceptions. He had the best hands on my team. If the ball comes to him, he'll catch it. Last year if Tennessee had linebackers that could have caught the ball in the second LSU game, they would have played for the national championship."

It sounds like Marvin Mitchell is the type of sleeper who could help John Chavis rest a little easier at night.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories