AUSTIN, Texas — On a defense with plenty of question marks entering the season, the linebacker position was arguably the biggest concern for coordinator Todd Orlando and the Texas Longhorns, especially after the spinal stenosis diagnosis for freshman De’Gabriel Floyd that will cost him this season, at the least.
Intent on finding another prospect for the 2019 recruiting class, the Horns scoured the junior college ranks to find a potential early contributor. Not an easy task in the summer.
Due to a little bit of good fortunate and plenty of due diligence, Texas found the perfect candidate.
The staff discovered that Butler CC’s Juwan Mitchell, then committed to Minnesota as a member of the 2020 recruiting class, could qualify and arrive in Austin during the summer. The Horns offered in early May, the day before the New Jersey native took an official visit to Fayetteville, and landed a pledge from the 6’1, 240-pounder several weeks later, in immediate aftermath of an official visit to Austin.
The coaching staff sold him on how much it needed help at linebacker.
“They were just saying they need me a lot, need experienced linebackers. They’d have Joseph (Ossai), Jeffery (McCulloch), me, Dele (Adeoye) and Caleb (Johnson),” Mitchell told Orangebloods’ Jason Suchomel of Texas’ pitch during his official visit. “The loss of (Floyd) hurt a lot because he was expected to compete immediately, so they definitely need depth at the linebacker position.”
Only a few short weeks after Mitchell’s whirlwind recruitment by the Longhorns, Mitchell arrived on the Forty Acres as a low three-star prospect and outside of the top 150 junior college players in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
It completed a road less traveled for a player who went to two different high schools, ended up in El Dorado, then signed with Rutgers as a member of the 2019 recruiting class. When he struggled to transfer his credits, he returned to Butler for the spring semester.
After leading Butler in tackles (55) and tackles for loss (7.5) during an All-Conference season in Kansas and then unexpectedly making it to Texas, Mitchell first had to get himself in shape, in addition to learning a new defensive scheme.
Working with strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight, Mitchell has lost eight or nine pounds since the summer to improve his sideline-to-sideline speed, a prerequisite for playing linebacker in the spread-heavy Big 12.
Despite the need at the position, though, and the weight loss, the odds weren’t high for Mitchell to contribute early — he started working at Mac, Orlando’s middle linebacker position, where Ayodele Adeoye had already spent a redshirt season developing and fellow junior college transfer Caleb Johnson had spent the spring learning the system as he rehabbed an injured shoulder.
The presence of another early enrollee, Florida product Marcus Tillman, Jr., and the cross-training of sophomore B-backer Joseph Ossai also presented impediments to Mitchell’s potential for playing time. With Ossai working at the Rover, Orlando moved senior Jeffrey McCulloch to Mac at times early in the season.
Most junior college prospects take three or four months to adjust, like Gary Johnson, who didn’t really start to flash in 2017 until November. So consider Mitchell already ahead of the curve after making his first start against West Virginia last weekend.
“This guy is really, really sharp,” Orlando said on Wednesday. “He’s a one time, in a room, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and a lot of the kids will be able to say it, but he can go out on the field and say, ‘Yeah, I remember you saying that.’ So he’s a really unique kid.”
It was something that Orlando noticed during the recruiting process — Mitchell has played football his whole life and received excellent instruction early on in his career that he was able to absorb.
“We’re kind of receiving the benefits of that,” Orlando said.
As a result, the coaching staff decided after the Rice game that Mitchell had earned the ability to play by doing the right things on the field and off the field to check all the required boxes.
“You’re going to see much more of him moving forward,” Orlando said. “I think it’s kind of the way I felt about a lot of guys that come into the program, especially in the summertime. It’s kind of you got to earn your right to get on the field, and he might be the best one that’s out there right now. But you still got to work at it, and you got to do all the things. When you do that, you’ll be out there. Until then, you got to prove to us that you’re going to do it. He’s right along that path.”
A sack against the Owls helped solidify the staff’s belief in Mitchell and another sack against the Cowboys the following week helped confirm his ability. The sophomore currently leads the Longhorns in that category, tied with Ossai.
What is setting Mitchell apart at Texas is what set him apart at Butler — his understanding of the game and his natural instincts help him regularly play at his top possible speed, a consistent demand that Orlando makes of his players and an area where past Longhorns linebackers have notably struggled.
Guys like Johnson and Malik Jefferson could make up for missteps with pure speed, but it’s arguable that Mitchell is already showing the best instincts for any Texas player at the position in recent years.
“He’s doing a good job. He’s a really good ballplayer. He’s got really good vision and instincts,” Orlando said.
“He’s just instinctive. That’s the one thing that he does, and then when he makes a decision, he just puts his foot in the ground and goes. There’s never any hesitation with him.”
Combine those instincts with improved conditioning and plenty of physicality for a position that demands it and Mitchell has 13 tackles and those two sacks through five games. Expect that production to only increase as Mitchell takes snaps away from McCulloch, as happened against the Mountaineers.
Call it a superlative evaluation by Orlando, too.