As the injuries have piled up for the Bulls’ wide receiving corps, a redshirt freshman has emerged as the team’s most potent offensive threat not named Matt Grothe.
Fans have grown accustomed to the production Carlton Mitchell has provided on the field, but behind the scenes, teammates never know what to expect from him.
“Sometimes he’s the quietest guy I’ve ever met, and sometimes he’s the loudest guy I’ve ever met,” Grothe, the starting quarterback, said. “You wouldn’t expect it. If you saw his quiet side you would never think he would be as loud as he can be. After seeing him one day and seeing him the next day you’d say ‘Is this guy bipolar?’ He’s all over the place.”
During the team’s last four games, Mitchell’s play has taken him all over the field, too, as he has become one of Grothe’s most reliable targets in place of Taurus Johnson and Amarri Jackson, both sidelined with leg injuries.
Although his production has been steady since being inserted into the starting lineup, Mitchell’s daily approach has always been somewhat erratic.
“I’m a deep thinker, so sometimes I just walk around and have my head down and try to keep to myself,” Mitchell said. “Then there are times when I just want to make people excited, so I want to find a way to make people laugh. I guess there are two Carltons.”
The two different personas have been reflected in Mitchell’s play as the season has progressed. In the first five games, made five catches for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Even though Mitchell has caught a pass in all nine games this year, his breakthrough performance came against Central Florida, as his two catches totaled 107 yards and his 75-yard score put an exclamation point onto USF’s most dominating performance of the season.
When Johnson and Jackson left the next contest against Rutgers with injuries, he was thrust into a more prominent role.
“When they went down, I was ready, but at the same time I was kind of down because I’m so close to those guys – I couldn’t even sleep at night,” Mitchell said. “But Amarri – he’s my roommate – he came to me said ‘This is your time,’ and I wasn’t nervous after that. It pretty much was an easy transition.”
His teammates share the confidence in him.
“He’s done a really great job – I knew he was going to,” Grothe said. “He’s one of the fastest guys I’ve seen. He’s a big, lanky guy. You just look for the streak of green running across the field.”
Along with his talent on the football field, Mitchell has excelled as a sprinter for the track team. Participating in both sports keeps him in game shape all year long and allows him to improve on his football techniques in the offseason.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Mitchell runs a 4.28 40-yard dash. During his freshman year as a member of the USF track team, he shattered the school’s 400 meter record with a time of 47.28 at the Georgia Tech Invitational.
“He brings a hard work ethic to our practice. He’s a very athletic young man and he can get the job done,” USF men’s track and field coach Warren Bye said. “In our sport it is year-round, but for (football players) it’s double year-round because they have spring ball and then come to track practice to get a double workout that day.”
Running track has translated into additional success on the football field for Mitchell. His 43 yards per game lead the team, and most of his yards have come after the catch.
“I’m a better receiver than when I first came in here because track has helped me out a lot,” Mitchell said. “I got faster and it’s helped my flexibility. We stretch for 30 minutes a day and that’s really gotten me into great shape.”
His versatility hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“He’s probably one of the best athletes on our team,” junior safety Carlton Williams said. “He can run, that joker can run. I haven’t gotten a real good lick on him yet, but I still have a whole year to try and get him. He’s just real elusive.”
Mitchell said the only time a teammate got the best of him was during spring practice when Jerome Murphy gave him a concussion, leaving him unable to play for two days.
Most receivers will refuse to admit that they don’t like getting hit. But after Mitchell was laid out catching a screen pass against Florida Atlantic, he’s tried to avoid the violent hits that come with running in the middle of the field.
“The reason why I don’t get hit hard is because I run scared. I think that’s why I run so fast,” Mitchell said. “Every time I get the ball, I just run scared and say ‘Don’t touch me’ and just try to avoid those big hits.”
The deep threat Mitchell provides has the Bulls believing the opponents guarding him are the ones who should be frightened.
“He’s so extremely fast and (off the line) he goes,” wide receiver coach Mike Canales said. “He puts fear in people I think because of his ability to run down the field, and he’s caught three or four balls over 25 yards. That’s got to put the corners back a little bit, and we’ve been able to take advantage of that.”
He became the first receiver since Hugh Smith in 2002 to record two 100-yard performances in a single season after he set career highs with seven receptions and 110 yards against Cincinnati.
Mitchell leads the Bulls in receiving yards (390) and yards per catch (17.7) and ranks second with 22 receptions, even though his first career start came against the Bearcats.
When USF takes the field Saturday at Syracuse, the team will once again turn to both of Mitchell’s personalities to spark the pass game.
“He’s so humble, even in practice now sometimes he’ll be quiet and shy and then other days he’s just this outgoing person. But you learn to love them both,” Williams said. “He’s stepping into a big role and has big shoes to fill. Whatever he’s doing he just needs to keep doing it.”
If he keeps his pace of 43 yards per game, Mitchell will finish the season with 519 and have three seasons to catch Smith’s career record of 1,523 yards.
“He’s got so much speed and so much untapped potential that when Amarri got hurt and he got to step on the field he didn’t take anyone by surprise,” Canales said. “The more catches he’s made, the more confidence he has, and he just wants that ball thrown to him. You knew it was there – it was just a matter of when it was going to happen.”