This is the fifth in an eight-part, position-by-position series previewing the 2012 Razorbacks. Up next: Running Backs
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel always searches for receiver Cobi Hamilton when he’s in line during one-on-one drills.
He hopes the senior breaks the huddle and comes to his side of the field, too, when the Razorbacks are going through 11-on-11 work or scrimmage sessions.
Hamilton is Arkansas’ best receiver, as evidence by his 11-catch, 165-yard performance in last Saturday’s Fan Day scrimmage. So Mitchel, a sophomore, wants to get in as much work as possible against the veteran this preseason.
“I always look for Cobi every time I’m lined up,” Mitchel said. “Where’s No. 11? Is he on my side? Is he on the other side? I get excited when he comes to my side.”
Mitchel has welcomed the challenge of battling against one of the Arkansas offense’s biggest stars as he gets ready for his first season opener as a starter.
The Mansfield, Texas, native — who is the son of former Oklahoma great Eric Mitchel — is trying to build on a freshman season in which he showed promise after being thrown into the fire. He’s gearing up for his second season and Arkansas’ defense is expecting Mitchel to perform like a veteran at a position loaded with experience and youth aside from senior Darius Winston.
So Mitchel knows there’s pressure on him to perform. And the best way to be prepared is by battling against Arkansas’ best receiver on a daily basis.
“It just helps his fundamentals and helps his technique and then if you can win a battle or two it helps your confidence,” Arkansas cornerbacks coach Bobby Allen said of Mitchel’s challenge in working against Hamilton. “If you want to be the best you’ve got to go against the best. And Cobi right now is our top receiver.”
Mitchel doesn’t always win. Last Saturday’s scrimmage is proof. Among Hamilton’s catches was a 21-yard touchdown over Mitchel. But part of playing the position is having a short memory, so Mitchel hasn’t shied away from taking a few lumps.
His only requirement is learning from every experience.
“That’s what I need. That’s what we both need,” Mitchel said. “I don’t need anybody to come up all buddy-buddy type of thing. He comes out and he competes.”
It’s nothing new to Mitchel, who did work against Arkansas’ talented receiving corps in his first season in college last fall. In fact, Mitchel won’t forget his welcome to college football moment, when former Hog Greg Childs beat him for a big play.
“He kind of caught the ball and I tried tackling him and he made me fall,” Mitchel said. “He put a little move on me and he actually told me, ‘Welcome to the SEC,’ as he was about to score. That kind of opened my eyes a little bit.”
But the work helped him prepare for a freshman season that included much more playing time than expected. Injuries at cornerback to Darius Winston and Isaac Madison pressed Mitchel into a starting job, which he held for seven games.
It wasn’t easy, but Mitchel made it through the year. Now he’s inching closer to his first season opener as a starter and is regarded as one of Arkansas’ best young players. So Mitchel has been more than willing to accept the challenge of battling with Hamilton on a daily basis throughout preseason camp.
“The thing about Tevin, you start to see just the slow growth every day and that’s what you want out of a player,” Allen said. “You see him always going forward and not really taking too many steps back. From where he was, I think his confidence level has risen from last year, last spring, to now.”
Mitchel — who was limited for much of last week by what appeared to be a minor groin injury — still has work to do. Allen pointed out some tackling flaws during Arkansas’ last scrimmage, which was a sore spot for most of the Razorbacks.
Allen also said Mitchel must play the ball better in the air, which is an emphasis for all of the Hogs defensive backs after struggling in that regard last season.
But Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said working against the Razorbacks’ passing attack makes is the best way to improve. He said Mitchel’s one-on-one battles with Hamilton this preseason will pay off beginning Sept. 1.
“You’re going against great receivers every day so you can only get better,” Haynes said. “But Tevin is having a great camp for us so far.
“And it’s good to see you’re starting to win some of those battles.”
A Closer Look At … DEFENSIVE BACKS
Best of the Bunch: S Eric Bennett – The returning starter finished 2011 ranked fourth on the team in tackles. He has been sidelined much of the preseason because of a leg injury, but remains the best player in the secondary. A former corner, Bennett brings coverage skills to the backline and recorded three interceptions his first years as a starter. But his tackle total shows he’s also not afraid of contact.
Watch Out For: CB Kaelon Kelleybrew — The Little Rock native spent his first two years in college at Mississippi Valley State, but left the program and walked on with the Razorbacks. He’s now in position for playing time as a second-team cornerback, showing the potential to help the Hogs at a position of need. Kelleybrew, a former basketball player in high school, is also going to contribute on special teams.
Biggest Strength: Arkansas has two returning starters back at cornerback. There also are two veterans back at safety. While the secondary remains one of the team’s biggest question marks, the first-team group has been through the rigors of the SEC before. The experience should help as they try to improve a pass defense that ranked 10th in the conference last season (195.2 yards a game).
Biggest Question: Is Arkansas deep enough at both cornerback and safety to survive the season? The Razorbacks feel good about that starting four (and five if you’re counting Rohan Gaines). But there could be problems if injuries strike. Newcomers and inexperienced vets dot the depth chart at both positions, leaving Arkansas vulnerable if its top players can’t stay on the field throughout the season.
Projected Starters: Cornerbacks — Darius Winston, Sr.; Tevin Mitchel, So.; Safeties — Ross Rasner, Sr.; Eric Bennett, Jr.
Other Contributors: Cornerbacks –Kaelon Kelleybrew, Sr.; Davyon McKinney, RS-Fr.; Willl Hines, Fr.; Ray Buchanan, Fr.; Safeties – Rohan Gaines, RS-Fr.; Jerry Mitchell, Jr.; Alan Turner, So.; Kelvin Fisher Jr., RS-Fr.; Defonta Lowe, Fr.;
That Figures: 1 — Interceptions by Arkansas cornerbacks last season. Departed senior Greg Gatson is the lone cornerback who came down with the football, something the Razorbacks hope to change this fall. Consider this: Darius Winston is the only cornerback on the roster with an interception at Arkansas. He has one.
Quotable: “Not too many people get the opportunity to come from a lower division school to a major Division I school and get the opportunity to maybe play and be on a contending team. It’s definitely a blessing and I definitely cherish every moment.” — Kelleybrew on his unlikely trek from Mississippi Valley State to Arkansas, where he is in line to contribute on defense this season.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau