Before the Bulls’ Oct. 12 game against Southern Mississippi, senior Kawika Mitchell got to hold the Butkus Award, which was visiting Raymond James Stadium. In the game, Mitchell dominated with 12 tackles, including two for losses.
Five days later, the Downtown Athletic Club of Orlando published the list of 11 finalists for the trophy, which honors the nation’s best linebacker.
Mitchell’s name was not on it.
“It was sort of cruel,” Mitchell said. “It was nice holding it. I told them I was going to steal it.”
The middle linebacker was on a watch list of 67 linebackers that was announced by the club in late August, before the season started. Since then, Mitchell has collected 77 tackles and leads the nation in tackles for a loss with 16.
“It would have been nice to be on the last 11, but I don’t have any control over that,” Mitchell said. “It was on my mind a little bit. Coming out of high school, you want to win the Butkus. Playing linebacker, you want to do the best you can.”
Mitchell has better numbers this season than some of the 11 players who made the list but has the disadvantage of playing at little-known South Florida, which played its first nationally televised game earlier this year. Nine of the 11 finalists play football for programs that are currently ranked in the BCS Top-15.
“I knew the odds were stacked against me because we’re such a small school,” Mitchell said. “The main reason I wanted to be on it was to set the tone for USF linebackers, but there will be plenty more to follow.”
The Butkus Award winner is selected by 29 of the nation’s foremost media members. A tie in the balloting resulted in 11 semifinalists instead of the usual 10. The winner will come from the three finalists when the list is pared down again Nov. 14.
Bulls coach Jim Leavitt thinks that Mitchell was deserving to be on the list of finalists, but said that something good will come from the snubbing.
“I’m biased,” Leavitt said. “I think he’s an awfully good player. But that’s just more fuel for Kawika. Kawika doesn’t need those things. That’s what’s allowed him to do the things he’s done. He has such a strong focus on his play.
“I’m sure that there’s a great reason for that not to happen, and he will take that and turn it into a positive in one way or another.”
In Saturday’s game against East Carolina, Mitchell used his omission as motivation on his way to nine tackles.
While Mitchell wishes he could enjoy the recognition of being named one of the country’s 11 best linebackers, he said it’s more important to him to play dominating team defense.
“We want to go 9-2, that would be the best record in school history,” Mitchell said. “We want to go to a bowl game. As a team, I still don’t think that we’ve put one together yet.”