Malcolm Mitchell’s New, Old Position
By BJ Bennett
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Back to his former position full-time, Malcolm Mitchell's chaotic career is coming full-circle.
Entering spring practice last season, the pressure was on Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell. After dazzling as a true freshman, with 45 receptions for 665 yards and four touchdowns, more was needed from the Valdosta-native; this time, ironically, at cornerback. A dynamic athlete with two-way ability, the UGA coaching staff had long had their curiosities about whether or not Mitchell's skill set could translate to defense. After multiple off-season arrests in the defensive backfield, coupled with the graduation of All-SEC veteran Brandon Boykin, Mark Richt and Todd Grantham no longer had the luxury of of wondering about Mitchell. They needed him.
Mitchell was officially moved to defense, limiting the offensive opportunities for one of the team's most explosive players. It was a decision that simply had to be made.
“It’s just a lot more difficult than when playing high school with guys that didn’t have the same ability that I had,” Mitchell explained in March of 2012. “I could get out there and play around and still do good on defense and same way for offense. Now I have to actually learn everything and get it down.”
With nothing more than a spring practice audition serving as his proverbial college prep, Mitchell, named the SEC's All-Freshman Team his first year, entered 2012 as a key piece in the defensive backfield. An ankle injury postponed his highly-anticipated and highly-necessary defensive debut, meaning test one would come on the road, in primetime, against conference foe Missouri. Mitchell, making his first college start for the second time in his career, responded. He finished with six tackles and two pass breakups in a 41-20 taming of the Tigers
Mitchell would continue to work prominently on defense against Florida Atlantic and Vanderbilt before switching back over to the offense upon the return of players from suspension. In three games, he would compile 12 total tackles, ten solo, and three pass breakups for a defense that allowed just 43 total points in three convincing victories. With secondary stability restored, Mitchell, again, changed roles.
Despite not tallying his first reception until the Bulldogs' third game and not having an outing with more than one catch until the end of September, Mitchell finished his sophomore season with 40 grabs for 572 yards and four scores. In Georgia's 29-24 escape at Kentucky, Mitchell caught a career-high nine passes for 103 yards. The very next week he would make up for a critical personal foul penalty that drew the ire of his head coach by taking a short fourth quarter pass 45 yards for a touchdown in Georgia's 17-9 triumph over second-ranked Florida.
“A lot of players came up to me and said, ‘listen, you’re a good player. Just play your game and don’t get into arguments with them,’. I think I had been doing it the whole game, that’s just the first time that called me on it. The situation we were in, we really didn’t need that. Fortunately, opportunity came right after that," Mitchell recalled. "“I’ll always remember being in the end zone and my team jumping all over me."
Mitchell finished the season exclusively at wide receiver, showing the same speed that took SEC East opponents by storm his freshman year. During the lead-up to Georgia's Capital One Bowl pairing with Nebraska, Richt put potential debate to bed with a definitive statement about Mitchell's future.
“What do I think his role is going to be? Wide receiver. I doubt he plays any more corner," Richt stated. "I just think he needs to play one position. If he’s going to be the best he can be at either position, I think he needs to concentrate on just one of them, and receiver is where he’s going to be."
Looking ahead to spring practice 2013, on the edge making plays is where Georgia needs Mitchell to be. Gone are seniors Tavares King and Marlon Brown, who combined for 69 receptions, 1,419 yards and 14 touchdowns in 22 games a year ago. King finished in the top seven in the SEC in receiving yards and tied for first in the division with nine scores. He led all of BCS Conference football with a per-catch average of 22.6 yards. Michael Bennett, the team's leading returnee outside of Mitchell, is coming off of a torn knee ligament.
Mitchell's penchant for the big play may prove to be the final piece to the puzzle on an offense that returns senior quarterback Aaron Murray, star running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and a veteran offensive line. Some pundits have suggested that Georgia will have the top offensive unit in the nation this fall, good news considering Clemson, South Carolina and LSU are each on September's schedule for a team that must replace ten key veterans on defense.
To date, Mitchell has been the Bulldogs' most versatile piece. One year after learning a new position, he must now learn a new role.
"I’m definitely happy he’s back on offense, that’s for sure," acknowledged UGA quarterback Aaron Murray of his new go-to receiver.
Back to his former position full-time, Mitchell's chaotic career is coming full-circle. Last year, Georgia's sophomore star had to find a way to be ready. This season, it's SEC cornerbacks who better be.