Junior linebacker Kawika Mitchell has had his share of attention in the last week. On Thursday, Mitchell was named to the Butkus Award watch list for the 2001 season, ranking him with some of the top linebackers in the country. And as the football team gets ready to begin its first season in Division I-A, Mitchell seems to be calm and confident about the increased challenge.
?I think the competition is going to be high. It has been high every year,? Mitchell said. ?We haven?t had this much depth in the past. This year we have more depth, which means there will be more competition. We have a lot of talent at the linebacker position.?
Mitchell?s comments concerning the competition at linebacker are well warranted. The position will be one of the strongest in the defense, with returning players with talent and experience. Mitchell, playing mainly in the weak-side linebacker position, led the team in tackles last season with 77, including 13 tackles in back-to-back games last season against Kentucky and James Madison.
?Right now, it looks like we have about four starters at the linebacker spot with Mitchell, (Anthony) Williams and (Maurice) Jones ? we know those guys are going to start, but you also got Mike Minus in there,? said head coach Jim Leavitt. ?Those guys are probably going to rotate quite a bit. And after that it?ll be interesting to see who else will be in the hunt at linebacker.?
Mitchell has seen the amount of effort it takes to build a successful Division I-A football team. He spent the 1998 season as a redshirt at the University of Georgia before transferring to USF to gain more playing time. And he has gotten just that. On top of his team-leading tackles last season, including 54 unassisted stops, Mitchell saw a lot of action in 1999 after arriving at USF in the spring. He quickly became a fixture in the linebacker corps, starting eight games and recording 54 tackles (third on the team in 1999) and also catching his first and only-to-date interception for 22 yards.
?Our linebackers have always been really aggressive. We attack as much as we can, as much as our matchups will allow. And Kawika is a big part of that,? said Leavitt.
Mitchell along with senior Anthony Williams, will be looked to for leadership on a defense that lost a lot of veteran players to graduation.
?On the whole defense, we lost a number of people,? said Rick Kravitz, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator. ?We lost a whole secondary with the exception of Joe (Morgan), and we lost a lot up front. So a strong linebacker corps is going to be important to this defense and I think we have that.?
Along with this role as a leader, Mitchell will need to continue to provide the aggressive playing style that he has shown in the past. With the strength in the linebacker position Mitchell may see himself shuffled throughout the three linebacker positions depending on the strengths of the Division I-A competition.
?Kawika is going to play all over the place,? said Kravitz. ?He played all three positions last year. He?ll probably stay somewhere towards the middle, but he?s capable of playing all three positions.?
Though Mitchell did play all three positions last year, as well as filling the middle position in 1999 after an injury to Jason Butler, he will probably be most effective on the weak side where he says he feels most comfortable.
?Hopefully, I?m going to stick mainly to the weak side,? Mitchell said. ?That is what I would like to do and hopefully that is what they are going to try to do ? we have more depth all around so I think (the coaches) will be able to keep people at their strongest positions.?
Along with his 144 career tackles, Mitchell brings tremendous agility and speed to the weak side. He also brings power along with that agility ? team reports have Mitchell putting up a 410-pound bench press as well as a 36.50-inch vertical jump.
Leavitt agrees with Mitchell on his preference to stay on the weak side, saying his strength and history in the position make him a key figure in the defense.
?Kawika can play any of the positions, obviously, but we are going to start him off on the weak side, then maybe move him as we need,? Leavitt said. ?Linebacker is a tough position. There is always a lot of competition for those positions and this year there is a lot of young talent and I?m excited about that.?
Being listed on the watch list for the Butkus Award hasn?t changed Mitchell?s focus on the season.
?I always hoped that one day I would be on that list. It has been my goal since I went to linebacker,? Mitchell said. ?It feels pretty good. But I try not to pay attention to it as much as possible because it doesn?t really mean anything until the season is over and we see how well I do.?
The changes to the team and the move to Division I-A are driving Mitchell at the start of the 2001 season.
?It?s a different level of course, so we?ve been trying to push ourselves harder than in the past, but we try to prepare hard every year. So this year we are trying to make ourselves ready, just like we would any other season,? Mitchell said. ?Once we get rolling, once we get into the game and realize the speed of it, realize what we need to do, we are just going to go up from there. We?re confident and we?re ready to go.?
Jarrett Guthrie covers football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org