When the Texas Longhorns found out that talented early enrollee linebacker De’Gabriel Floyd is likely to miss the 2019 season due to spinal stenosis, the coaching staff had a problem — a lack of depth at the position, an issue exacerbated by the late clearance of junior college transfer Caleb Johnson, who received limited reps in spring practice due to a shoulder injury that required surgery last fall.
With a weak graduate transfer market for linebackers, Texas recently hosted Florida’s Kylan Johnson, but ultimately landed on a more appealing option in Butler CC’s Juwan Mitchell, who has four years to play three seasons.
Once a member of the 2017 recruiting class out of New Jersey, Mitchell landed in El Dorado for the 2018 season, along with eventual Texas signee Jacoby Jones, a defensive end. After signing with Rutgers and intending to enroll this spring, Mitchell had an admissions issue that eventually resulted in his commitment to Minnesota as a member of the 2020 recruiting class.
When Arkansas and Texas offered Mitchell as a 2019 prospect, however, he reconsidered and took official visits to both schools before committing to the Longhorns hours after leaving 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.”
With the addition of Mitchell, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando now has more flexibility to find the best fits at the inside linebacker positions.
McCulloch, a rising senior, spent the spring at Rover and played well there, but he doesn’t have ideal speed for the position. While Johnson does, he’ll probably spend preseason camp acclimating to the increased level of competition. According to head coach Tom Herman and multiple players, Adeoye, a middle linebacker, put on too much muscle mass during his redshirt season and that weight gain impacted his movement ability.
So where does that leave Mitchell? Listed at 6’1 and 235 pounds, he’s probably a middle linebacker based on high school testing numbers from back in 2016, when he ran a 4.81 40-yard dash and posted a 26.8-inch vertical leap. He’s likely a better athlete three years later, in part because he’s slimmed down while adding muscle mass, but his numbers are close enough to McCulloch’s testing numbers from high school that he doesn’t seem like an ideal fit at Rover.
What makes Mitchell a possible early contributor at the Mac position is that he does have some sideline-to-sideline speed, but most importantly, he diagnoses and reacts to running plays extremely quickly — there are times when he gets such a good jump into the backfield that it looks like he knew what play was coming.
There are also numerous bone-crunching hits, as there’s no question that Mitchell has the physical demeanor necessary for the position. He can sink and explode through his hits while driving his legs and wrapping to finish tackles with authority.
He also had an interception last season, so he showed some ability to take effective coverage drops.
One short stretch against Hutchinson early in his junior college career was particularly impressive (starting at the 1:00 mark), as Mitchell chased down a wide receiver in space to make a touchdown-saving tackle, filled on a run play to gang tackle the running back short of the end zone, then shot a gap to make a tackle for loss on the quarterback when he started trying to scramble. Good stuff.
As with most linebackers making the transition to college football, the biggest question is whether he can learn to defeat opposing offensive linemen working to the second level — there are only a couple clips of him even engaging offensive linemen. Fortunately, Orlando’s scheme and Mitchell’s instincts help mitigate any concerns in that regard because the tite front is designed to allow the linebackers room to run to the football and Mitchell shoots gaps so quickly that offensive linemen don’t have much time to work up to him at the second level.
He can be effective without becoming adept in that particular aspect of the game and there is one play on his highlights against Independence CC where he blows up an offensive lineman in his pursuit of the quarterback. Just straight knocks the guy to the ground.
One of my favorite clips of new #Texas LB commit Juwan Mitchell (@juwanmitchell_6) doesn't show up on his full-season highlight reel. In pursuit, he shows his physicality and punch by knocking down an offensive lineman who got in his way. #fUTure19 #HookEm pic.twitter.com/FuIr0zaZXE— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) May 14, 2019
What’s clear about Mitchell is that he’ll attack offensive linemen with force and aggression in those situations — they effort and physicality won’t be lacking.
The most appealing aspect of Mitchell’s skill set as it would translate to Rover is that he’s a strong blitzer and Orlando uses that position in a lot of his blitzes. Of course, McCulloch is a good blitzer, too, after playing B-backer and Fox end early in his career, so Mitchell probably doesn’t have an advantage there.
As a result, pencil the junior college transfer in to the Mac position, where he’ll immediately compete for playing time against Adeoye. The increased depth there allows Johnson to move over to his more natural position at Rover and compete with McCulloch for that starting job.
Orlando cross-trains all of his linebacker at all three positions, including Ossai and redshirt freshman Byron Vaughns at Rover and Mac, but the addition of Mitchell decreases the odds that Orlando would need to use either player there. That’s a relief.
How quickly Mitchell can adjust at Texas will determine whether he’s in position to beat out Adeoye for a starting job to start the season, but there’s no question that the added depth he provides significantly reduces the concerns about potential worst-case scenarios at linebacker.
Most of all, credit the staff for once again finding a way to fill a need for the third time this offseason — previous additions include two-time All-ACC offensive guard Parker Braun as a graduate transfer and junior college offensive tackle transfer Willie Tyler as a member of the 2019 recruiting class.