Last year, USC redshirt sophomore Steven Mitchell sat alone in his room and typed his name into the search bar. He glanced over the YouTube results, but didn’t have to look far since the highlights from his senior season at Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany are the top result.
Mitchell pored over the eight-minute tape, watching the yellow No. 81 in the U.S. Army All-American game make the first guy miss on the tape’s first three plays, studying the black and gold No. 4 darting back and forth across the screen. No. 4 somehow produces combinations of moves like an arcade video-game — but those of a fighting game, because you can’t move the joystick quick enough to create those combinations in Madden.
There’s an innate ability to sense where a defender’s weight has shifted and then a quick change of direction leaves the defender drunkenly grabbing for someone or something to keep them from going face first to the ground. And No. 4 has a burst that propels him forward like a Mario Kart golden mushroom.
Mitchell recognized the moves since he had watched and re-watched the clips, but he doesn’t know the person. It’s Steven Mitchell. It’s him. He knows that. But it’s not. Something was now missing and as he combed through the highlights over and over he searched for clues of how to get it back.
“I used to watch my highlights like every day and I used to be like, ‘Man, I need to get back to that old Steven,’” Mitchell said. “And when I used to come out here, I'd be feeling good or whatever, but I knew that I didn’t have that quick step like I used to.”
Mitchell stood on the USC sideline during practice his freshman year and watched Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor compete with and against each other. ‘I know I can do that. I know I can do that,’ Mitchell told himself. But when he was able to strap on the pads himself and get back on the practice field, he couldn’t. His body wouldn’t let him.
During voluntary workouts during the summer before his first semester at USC, Mitchell made a cut and immediately collapsed to the turf at Cromwell Field, clutching his right knee. An MRI later revealed he had torn ligaments in the knee and his freshman season was over before it had even began.
Watching from the sidelines was tough, but it was even tougher when Mitchell continued to be sidelined. He missed the spring and underwent a pair of procedures for a sports hernia that slowed him during the summer and through preseason fall camp.
Mitchell was relieved to finally be back on the field as the Trojans’ 2014 season began, but still something wasn’t right. Something was still missing. He wasn’t able to blow by guys, make them miss, beat them in a variety of ways. Mitchell thought he was back, but he wasn’t. He wasn’t explosive.
“Throughout high school and when I first got here, that was my game. When I got hurt, I was devastated. I was devastated, man,” Mitchell said. “That just made me work even harder in the weight room. In the weight room, we focus more on our legs and our core and stuff, so that’s where I got my explosiveness back.”
Midway through the season, Mitchell started regaining his form little by little. Head coach Steve Sarkisian gave him a vote of confidence to push him along. “I don’t know if he’s exactly back to where he’s capable of being, but I think he’s a lot closer,” Sarkisian told the media.
Soon, Mitchell had a 24-yard catch against Colorado for his first career touchdown. Two games later, he had his first (and only) multiple-catch performance, making a nice 23-yard grab to set up USC’s final touchdown in a 44-17 rout of Washington State — a touchdown that came on the next play when Mitchell caught a 5-yarder for his second career score.
Against Notre Dame, he took a bonecrunching hit on a quick pass over the middle, but showed his toughness holding onto the ball for an 11-yard gain and a first down. He earned the start against Nebraska in the National University Holiday Bowl after a strong string of December practices, but again had a setback. He was sidelined early in the game after spraining his knee.
Every step forward seemed to have a step back. Wide receivers coach Tee Martin had another protege that had a similar story, so he asked Seattle Seahawks’ receiver Chris Matthews to visit USC’s final spring practice before spring break.
Matthews didn’t qualify out of high school at Los Angeles (Calif.) Dorsey and ended up at Los Angeles Harbor College before making his way across the country to a completely different land at Kentucky where Martin was the receivers coach prior to accepting the same position at USC. Despite prototypical NFL size, 925 yards and nine touchdowns his senior season, Matthews went undrafted, and was cut by the Cleveland Browns before ending up in the Canadian Football League.
A successful rookie CFL season was followed by an injury-plagued sophomore campaign for Matthews. Then in 2014 the tide turned again and he signed a reserve/futures contract with the Seahawks and was eventually activated to the 53-man roster in December. He didn’t have a regular season catch, but came up with the onside kick recovery that set up the Seahawks’ NFC Championship victory and then, out of nowhere, was the leading receiver in the Super Bowl with 109 yards and a touchdown.
Matthews talked to the USC receivers about hard work, being prepared and never giving up. While he was speaking to the entire group, it could have easily have been a direct message for Mitchell. But it was one he doesn’t necessarily need.
During the offseason, Mitchell added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame, bulking up to around 190 pounds. He’s come out with a hungry desire to show the player that he can be.
“I feel real physical right now,” he said. “I don’t feel any hesitation. My confidence is here and my body is feeling really good.”
From the first spring practice when Sarkisian noted Mitchell's winter conditioning and strength, it’s evident the 5-foot-10 dynamo is making his mark.
And everyone keeps using the same word to describe him.
“Explosive,” sophomore receiver Juju Smith said. “Last year, he had a little time playing, but he’s out here in spring ball and he’s very explosive. You can see he’s one of the fastest kids out here.”
“He’s been around and now he’s back to form,” Martin said. “He’s really been consistent now in spring. That’s what we want. He showed those flashes of it last year toward the end of the year. He’s explosive.”
Mitchell has shown that trait in a variety of ways, from being able to catch the ball in the flats on bubble or tunnel screens where he can use his quicks to make guys miss to deep balls over the top or with catches over the middle in between zone defenses.
No matter where he catches the ball, there’s a good chance he’s about to make a defender look bad. Take a look at the back-to-back catches he makes at the 0:28 mark in the video below. First, he makes a diving grab in between three defenders and then watch the move he puts on Leon McQuay III that went for an 80-yard touchdown in the Coliseum in the final practice before spring break:
“Once he gets out of that break, like when he scored that slant, he just came out explosive. He burst out of it,” Smith said. “You’re not catching him after that. Speed kills and that’s what it is in college football.”
He’s even made an impression on the defenders that have to try to keep him in check:
“He brings a different skill that none of our receivers really have,” redshirt sophomore defensive back Chris Hawkins said. “He’s so versatile, so quick, so fast and he can really jitterbug around you, if you try to press or anything like that. He’s a great player. He’s a real deep threat and he does give us problems.”
On Tuesday, it had come full circle during the spring. Sarkisian, without prompt, singled out Mitchell’s performance and his ability to make catches despite having defenders draped all over him.
“I thought that he had a heck of a day. It wasn’t that he had a lot of catches,” Sarkisian said. “It was the types of catches that he made. They were competitive catches with people around him in tight quarters.”
“We really think he has a chance to become a really special player,” Sarkisian continued. “Steven has elite cutting ability and quickness. The key is getting him the ball in space so he can utilize that.”
USC has primarily lined Mitchell up in the slot in the past, but the coaching staff has stressed that he will also get opportunities on the outside, which Mitchell is prepared for, thanks to Agholor’s urging.
“When I was on the sideline, Nelly he just kept on me about staying in the playbook, not just learning inside, but learning inside and outside and just be focused and keep your head in the playbook.”
Rather than be a tough task, learning both positions is just a new experience for Mitchell.
“I love it. That just makes our offense that much more explosive. JuJu can move inside. Darreus [Rogers] can move inside. We all can just move around. That just puts more pressure on the DBs.”
With his versatility and speed, Sarkisian mentioned Ronald Johnson and Damien Williams when trying to compare him to former USC receivers. Mitchell said he watches Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Antonio Brown, another shorter, but speedy receiver.
But the only receiver Mitchell needs to be is the one in the YouTube highlights he kept watching in his room last year.