Gerard Martinez

Steven Mitchell Jr. an early USC fall camp standout

Clay Helton challenged Steven Mitchell Jr. coming into the fall and the redshirt junior has responded to be one of the early standouts of USC's training camp.

A year ago, there were big-time expectations for wide receiver Steven Mitchell, Jr.  He had been practically uncoverable as the breakout star of USC’s 2015 spring practice.

He got off to a good start early in the year, scoring four touchdowns in the first four games, though he didn’t have huge yardage numbers (126 yards on 13 catches). But in Week 5 against Washington, a defender dove low and essentially speared Mitchell’s ankle after the 5-foot-10 slot receiver made a catch in the final minutes before halftime. The hit forced Mitchell from the game and out for the next two games. He finished the year with 37 catches for 335 yards, but never saw the end zone again. The numbers weren’t bad, but far from the breakout campaign Mitchell envisioned.

Now a redshirt junior, Mitchell has bounced back with another strong spring and he’s trying to build on his offseason.

“Just keep doing what I’ve done in the spring and in the summer,” Mitchell said when asked about his fall goals. “In the weight room, I'm 200 pounds now. I'm bigger. I'm for sure stronger, faster. I'm just trying to make all the plays that I can make, catching all the balls and do my assignments.”

Mitchell admits there were times when he got down on himself and lost some confidence. There hasn’t been a hint of that this fall. Mitchell is back at full throttle and has been one of the early standouts through the first three days of USC’s training camp. He’s playing fast, finding holes in the defense as well as over the top and making all the catches when the ball comes his way, including a lunging grab on a deep ball Saturday evening.

Before camp started, head coach Clay Helton said he went to Mitchell and challenged him to not just go through the motions treating this camp like he was a veteran with a spot established.

“Let's make this your best year,” Helton said he told Mitchell. “You're the healthiest you've ever been. It's your time to shine. It's your time to be the guy to push the ball deep to.”

“He's really taken a great approach to it,” Helton said. “I appreciate him because…he's treating every day like it's a game.”

Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

The new guys that USC has brought in at the wide receiver position has helped that happen. Along with having more competition, the receiver group now gets more rest. That has allowed the veterans to go harder each rep, which Helton believes should make the team deeper and allow them to be fresher in the second half of games.

Mitchell and fellow oft-injured receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster believe the extra depth should help them stay healthier also as a few more plays off should help combat soft tissue injuries that may have previously occurred because of fatigue.

“It's so amazing having all the rest, being able to sit back and do plays mentally,” Smith-Schuster said. “It keeps me healthy. It keeps other guys healthy and keeps the rotation going.”

Along with his health, Mitchell feels the time off between reps is helping players learn their assignments better. One of the ways he is learning is through teaching.

“It’s definitely different,” Mitchell said. “We get more rest when we can. We're really trying to teach as much as we can, but we're really learning from [the freshmen] as well at the same time.”

No longer the young guy, he is transitioning into a new role of being a position leader and that includes keeping a positive attitude even if he has a mistake.

“Last year, I had a pretty good year, but I would find myself down a couple of times -- if I would drop a ball or I wouldn't do an assignment. This year, I'm for sure more confident in my game. I have no doubt that will [translate] to the games.”

The injuries he sustained played a part as they limited his ability to explode out of breaks. If he can avoid the injury bug, he is confident he can have the monster impact he was supposed to bring last year.

"Definitely No. 1 on the list is to not get injured, play throughout the whole season. If I can do that, I have no doubt I can have a breakout year."

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