It was late Sunday around 10 p.m., and USF junior wide receiver Carlton Mitchell was lying in bed watching TV.
Everything was normal, he said, as he watched cartoons and drifted off to sleep.
Then the phone rang.
It was wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan, who was up late watching film in the athletics building. He wanted to discuss some things he saw from Mitchell in practice that day.
So, Mitchell, who doesn’t live far from campus, did what any dedicated player would do: He got in his car and drove to school, joining McGeoghan, a first-year coach at USF, for a late-night film session.
“I appreciate that a lot – I appreciate him a lot for doing that,” Mitchell said. “Some players may get mad or annoyed by that, but I don’t. I want that. He took time out of his schedule because I know that he has to stay late to watch film … We went over blocking techniques for a while.”
A year ago, a situation like that probably wouldn’t happen for Mitchell – USF’s leading receiver this year – who said he’s changed his entire attitude and mind-set in the past six months with the help of McGeoghan and new offensive coordinator Mike Canales.
Last year, Mitchell, who struggled to find offensive consistency, said he was frustrated. He was lacking confidence. He had a lot of distractions keeping him from performing at the level he wanted to be.
“It was mostly mental. It was a focus thing,” he said. “I overthink a lot, and I had some injuries that I was always worrying about. I lacked confidence on certain plays, and I was always worried because I tried to do too much.”
A main goal for Canales is to ensure all his players are confident, he said. One of the ways he does that is to create a set of plays designed for individuals, including Mitchell.
“You try and create plays for them. We call them ‘FTS’ (plays): Feed the Studs, and try to get the ball in their hands,” Canales said. “We have a chart with us … Early in the game we try to get them the ball. If I can get (Mitchell) the ball, it helps to build confidence.”
Canales and McGeoghan stepped into their new roles this spring with the focus of spending more time with their players and building relationships.
“That’s our job description,” McGeoghan said. “All the X’s and O’s (in football) are assumed knowledge when you get to this level: How to run routes against a cover two or read a corner, things of that nature. These are people’s children. This program is a family. If you treat them that way, I believe you’ll get the most out of your players.
McGeoghan said he thought it was important to keep the communication open with Mitchell. He said they met constantly in the spring.
“It’s really an all-encompassing deal here. It takes a great deal of communication about his plan of the day. I call it his ‘P.O.D.,'” he said. “Every day, he comes and lets me know exactly what he’s going to do with his class schedule, his time management, if he has free time, what he’s doing with it. We just make sure we’re thorough in communication.”
Mitchell said it’s made a big difference in how he approaches the game of football.
The results this season prove it.
Mitchell, listed at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, is by far USF’s leading receiver with 377 yards and a team-high three receiving touchdowns. He’s averaging 75.4 yards per game and had a big 85-yard touchdown grab in a win over Syracuse on Oct. 3, his second of that game.
His other touchdown came in the third game of the season against Charleston Southern, a 50-yard strike from quarterback Matt Grothe.
Under Canales’ guidance and Mitchell’s big-play ability, the Bulls have seven passing plays of 50 yards or more this season. Last year, USF didn’t have a play above 47 yards.
Mitchell said he’s been impressed with redshirt freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels and his ability to step in for Grothe, who is out for the season with an ACL injury. Mitchell and Daniels have connected a number of times in recent weeks but became closer off the field as well.
“He’s my cousin,” Mitchell said. “We just found out we’re related. It’s crazy. It’s funny. We always call each other (cousin) now. We were at my mom’s house a while ago and through talking to different relatives, we found out we were related through my dad’s side.”
Another strong connection Mitchell has is with fellow receiver Dontavia Bogan, who is second on the team with 164 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Together, the two account for almost half of USF’s receiving production this season.
Bogan said he’s noticed a change in Mitchell that has benefited the team.
“I always tell Carlton this: You have to stay positive no matter what,” he said. “When something is going bad in life, think of the positive side of it, whether it’s a dropped pass or anything like that, he can’t beat himself up on it. We have that communication between us.”
Mitchell said it’s hard not to stay focused on football this week, as the No. 21 Bulls prepare for arguably the biggest game of the season against No. 8 Cincinnati tonight at Raymond James Stadium.
“Every game is huge, especially in the Big East,” he said. “I now play every game like it’s my last. Obviously, this game is big, though. (Cincinnati) is a good team, but it’s important to look at every game the same.”