Double-duty rookie

Most freshman football players have trouble learning one college position. So, when a guy is learning two positions, you figure the coaches must be determined to get him on the field.

Apparently, Tennessee's coaches are determined to get Nigel Mitchell-Thornton on the field. The 6-2, 228-pound rookie from Stephenson High of Stone Mountain, Ga., is learning two linebacker spots as the 2009 season approaches.

"Back in spring I learned Mike (middle), and now I'm learning a little bit of Will (weakside)," he said. "I'm going back and forth."

As a mid-term enrollee last winter, Mitchell-Thornton got to participate in spring practice. That experience proved invaluable.

"It helped me a whole lot," he said. "It helped me get to know the coaches and the plays. I would say it helped me get in the flow of college. When I came in, it was totally different from what it was in high school. I also got used to the speed of the game. It helped me a lot, coming in during the spring."

Because Tennessee's depth at linebacker is thin, Mitchell-Thornton got a lot of practice repetitions last spring. He learned a lot, and now that knowledge is carrying over and helping him in preseason camp.

"It's carrying over from spring because I know the defensive system we're running and how everything is supposed to go," he said. "I know which gap I'm supposed to fill and which guy I'm supposed to key."

Mitchell-Thornton recorded 119 tackles and two sacks as a high school senior. He also intercepted three passes, returning two for touchdowns. For his efforts he was tabbed first-team All-Georgia recognition by The Atlanta Journal/Constitution and rated America's No. 29 middle linebacker prospect by

What he accomplished in high school has no meaning now, of course. College ball is a whole new world - more alignments, more assignments, more responsibility and more complexity.

"It's very different," Mitchell-Thornton said. "Back in high school the only thing you have to do is key the back and go tackle him. Here it's a lot different. You have your gap and your man. It has a lot more foils with it than high school. "

Still, Mitchell-Thornton is grateful to his prep coaches for the lessons they taught him.

"My high school coaches helped me out a lot," he said. "I wasn't just a blitzer linebacker. I still covered (receivers), and we had a lot of different defenses. I wouldn't say high school prepared me for college defense but it still helped me out some."

Apparently, it helped enough that he's able to learn two positions as a college freshman.

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