FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas junior Braylon Mitchell has spent most of his college career on special teams, struggling to crack the playing rotation at linebacker.
So the Heber Springs native finds himself in an unexpected — and much welcomed — position this month. Mitchell is a member of Arkansas’ first-team defense at the strong side spot and is relishing the important role under a new coaching staff.
“Everybody got to start with a clean slate and what you did in the past it didn’t matter when the new coaches came in,” Mitchell said. “So from Day One I just tried to show the coaches I am willing to work and willing to do what it takes.”
Mitchell has done a good job of showing it as Arkansas moves through its final week of spring practice in preparation for Saturday’s Red-White Game.
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash applauded his linebackers for their improvement over the past two weeks and saved some of his appreciation for the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Mitchell in particular. Ash tagged Mitchell as the most improved member of Arkansas’ defensive unit this spring and the junior is carrying the label with pride as he helps lead an inexperienced group of linebackers into the spring game.
“Personally, I decided to approach spring ball with my sense that I needed to get better and help my teammates out and get to our ultimate goal,” Mitchell said.
Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon has lined Mitchell up on the strong side this spring. It was a surprise to many who rarely saw Mitchell on the field.
But Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and his staff have made it a point this spring to leave what players have done — or hadn’t done — in the past as they build for 2013.
“Did Braylon Mitchell surprise me? No,” Bielema said last Saturday. “But other people that have been around have made that comment, which I understand totally, just because he wasn’t a guy I heard a lot about coming in, and things along that line.
“What I love is he just is a very, very matter-of-fact kid. He handles his business. He grinds. He’s been a pupil in coach Shannon’s office quite a bit.”
Mitchell said it has been by design. He realized the coaching change meant there was a fresh start for every returning player on the roster. Positions were open. So after three disappointing seasons, Mitchell wanted to make a difference this spring.
Mitchell is expected to be part of the first-team group when it lines up for the Red-White Game on Saturday along with Daunte Carr (middle linebacker) and Jarrett Lake (weakside linebacker). It’s an untested group, but fits the description of most players at the position as Shannon tries to mold them into a solid unit.
Linebacker has been a problem for the Razorbacks for several years. The spring’s first-team linebackers — along with others in the group like Otha Peters, Robert Atiga, AJ Turner and Austin Jones — want to show the position is in good hands.
Ash said Mitchell is proving this spring he is capable of producing.
“That’s a guy that not a lot of people talked about when we first got here,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t know a whole lot about Braylon either. I tell you he’s out there with the ones and he’s been out there since early spring and he’s making a lot of plays.”
His performance, as well as the rest of the linebackers’, could go a long way in determining how well the Razorbacks perform defensively next season. Mitchell had one tackle in seven games last season and eight in 17 games during his career.
He never found a way to make an impact under the previous staff.
But Mitchell put much of the responsibility on his own shoulders.
“Back in the past I was just out there on the field running around not really understanding the scheme or the defense,” Mitchell said. “I have been more focused this spring and it has allowed me to make plays. I think it’s a maturity thing.”
Mitchell and the rest of Arkansas’ linebackers understand they’re being looked at as the question mark for the defense once again next season. So this spring has been his opportunity to prove he’ll be ready for playing time at linebacker next fall.
“I wanted to take the time with this new staff to listen to these guys because I know they can get me to where I want to get to,” Mitchell said last week.