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2024 Sugar Bowl preview: Texas WR AD Mitchell is built for the playoffs

The Georgia transfer is a two-time national champion who has scored a touchdown in every College Football Playoff game he’s played in.

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Ricardo Brazziell / USA TODAY NETWORK

AUSTIN, Texas — AD Mitchell is built for this.

When the Houston-area native arrived on the Forty Acres in January, the Georgia Bulldogs transfer was a back-to-back national champion who had scored a touchdown in all four of his College Football Playoff appearances with his eight catches for 149 yards and four touchdowns in those games amounting to 21 percent of his total receptions, 26.6 percent of his total receiving yards, and 57.1 percent of his total touchdowns over two seasons in Athens, the latter of which was severely limited by injury.

Mitchell might be about that action, but it’s on the low off the field — his new teammates say they’ve never even seen him wearing his championship rings.

Now headed into another College Football Playoffs playing for the Texas Longhorns with a semifinal game against the Washington Huskies on Monday in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Mitchell is not only back in his element, he’s proven that those big plays at Georgia weren’t just flashes — he’s certified as a receiver capable of consistent production with 51 catches for 813 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, one of 13 Power Five receivers to record at least 10 touchdowns in 2023.

Mitchell made the move from Athens to Austin because Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff entered the 2023 offseason trying to find a complementary deep threat to star receiver Xavier Worthy to take pressure off of Worthy and force defenses to account for multiple players able to stretch the field vertically.

“We were looking for a guy they had the skill set to take the top off a defense so Xavier wasn’t the only deep ball threat that we had,” said Sarkisian in October. “We were looking for a guy that can make plays on 50/50-type balls, that had a really good catch radius, and we were looking for a guy with experience that we didn’t want to roll the dice on. Could he handle playing in this environment and with the team that we have and what we think we could, and so he kind of checked all the boxes.”

The staff’s evaluation of the 6’4, 196-pounder went further than that, however — Sarkisian is only willing to take players from the NCAA transfer portal if they are cultural fits, too. Mitchell’s desire to be closer to his young daughter living with his parents in Houston made it a simple decision from his perspective.

“When we started the recruitment process of it, you got a sense of his maturity. He has a daughter, he’s a great father, he’s got two awesome parents that raised him really well. And it was an opportunity for him to come home, being from Houston to come back to Texas and still be in a system that was pro style coming from Georgia that fit kind of what he was looking for. I think it was just a good fit all the way around,” said Sarkisian.

The scheme fit helped Mitchell start his Texas career ahead of the curve, as Sarkisian put it in November.

“He came from a very good system at Georgia where there’s an NFL, pro-style type offense, a lot of different formations, motions, schemes, been in big games, and so it was very comfortable for him naturally and it’s all the nuances within a scheme right? It’s splits, it’s depth of routes, and things of that nature,” said Sarkisian. “But he came in, like I said, ahead of the curve — it’s not like he came from a completely different style of offense, the offense he came from was relatively similar to us, scheme-wise, pattern-wise, and things of that nature.”

Mitchell wasted little time showing off his catch radius, pulling down a remarkable one-handed grab in the first half of April’s Orange-White game for a 13-yard touchdown.

In the season opener against Rice, Mitchell scored his first actual touchdown for Texas, an indication of his ability to threaten opponents in the red zone thanks to elite change-of-direction ability for a taller wide receiver and an understanding of the subtle art of selling the fade route to create separation on the slant.

The next week in Tuscaloosa, back in Mitchell’s familiar SEC haunts and on the national stage again, the junior wide receiver was his playmaking self with three receptions for 78 yards and two touchdowns with both scores coming in the decisive 21-point fourth quarter for Texas — a seven-yard catch to retake the lead less than a minute into the final quarter to end a drive that started with Mitchell drawing a pass-interference penalty and a 39-yard catch to push the margin to 10 points with 8:23 remaining.

Like the touchdown catch against Rice, Mitchell sold the outside move on the decisive play before hitting his route inside of the defender as the middle safety was held by an inside break from senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington that left Mitchell wide open down the field, only needing to track the ball over his shoulder for the game-deciding play.

And remember what Sarkisian said about contested catches? Mitchell’s other grab of the game was a huge one, too, a go route from the Texas 6-yard line to beat Kool-Aid McKinstry, one of the nation’s best cover corners, for a 32-yard gain.

Against Kansas, Mitchell recorded the first 100-yard receiving game of his career with 10 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. A little more than a month later, broke the 100-yard mark again in one of the defining games of the season, providing a security blanket for backup quarterback Maalik Murphy on eight receptions for 149 yards and a touchdown.

It’s not just the playmaking ability of Mitchell defining his first and potentially only season in Austin, though — after the narrow win over TCU, Sarkisian recounted a play at the start of the second quarter when quarterback Quinn Ewers missed Mitchell in the end zone on a double move to force a field-goal attempt made by kicker Bert Auburn.

When Sarkisian went out to greet the field-goal operation, something he does after every made kick, Mitchell was there first, chest-bumping Auburn instead of sulking on the sidelines.

“I’ve been around a lot of receivers when they don’t get a ball thrown to them when they feel like they were open and they come to the sideline and they’re upset and understandably so — the receivers, they want the ball — but that guy being the teammate that he is and being on a championship-level team back-to-back years, he knows how much the team matters and he’s out there celebrating with the kicker. So I think that in and of itself speaks volumes to who’s AD Mitchell and what he’s about. We’re fortunate to have him,” Sarkisian said two days after the win.

Of course, a team-first moment after a mistake by the quarterback isn’t what defines Mitchell between the whistles and the road game in Fort Worth was ultimately another example of him making plays in key moments.

Late in the first half, Mitchell extended a 13-6 lead to 20-6, this time selling the slant inside to create separation with a fade route before his trademark body control and strong hands finished another key red-zone play.

In a slogging third quarter that didn’t feature any scoring by either team, Mitchell helped get the Longhorns off their goal line after the Texas defense stopped four plays by TCU at or inside its 5-yard line. On 1st and 10 following the turnover on downs, Mitchell caught a 20-yard pass down the sideline on a slant-and-go route.

Desperately holding on to a three-point lead on a drive that started with 3:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Horns faced a crucial 3rd and 12 from the Texas 13-yard line. After TCU called timeout, Sarkisian dialed up another fade route for Mitchell. Ewers, seeing man-to-man coverage on the outside, knew where he was going with the football before the snap. Tracking the ball over his shoulder, Mitchell adjusted to the throw from Ewers, hitting the turf at Amon Carter Stadium just as the ball arrived to seal the win and preserve the championship ambitions for Texas.

Asked about the degree of difficulty on the catch after the game, Mitchell was characteristically humble.

“Credit to Quinn for just giving me the chance,” said Mitchell. “We work that a lot and we took the practice field to the game and, ultimately, great things happened.”

Funny that, how great things tend to happen when Mitchell is involved.

On Monday in the Superdome, Mitchell will be back where he’s meant to be, doing what he’s meant to do, as Sarkisian summarized succinctly in November.

“He’s got great playmaking ability — the moment’s never too big for him.”