Football: Max Mitchell grew into big role for the Ragin' Cajuns
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Sept. 11, 2019
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He played as a true freshman, at left tackle. He beat out a senior to start at the position as a sophomore this year.
And now, after a teammate on the same side went down, he’s playing two positions — tackle and guard — for the 1-1 Ragin’ Cajuns, who on Saturday night play host to FCS SWAC-member Texas Southern.
How was Max Mitchell so ready so soon to take on such a big role at UL?
It’s all about his background at Neville High in Monroe, Cajuns coach Billy Napier suggests.
“The program that he came from, not only was he well-coached, but the strength and conditioning program at that school — that’s a winning program, and they do it the right way,” Napier said.
A season ago, Mitchell shared time at tackle — primarily with starter Rico Robinson.
Even he admits he was caught off guard to be playing so much at tackle early on for UL, which last year went 7-7 with appearances in the Sun Belt Conference championship game at Appalachian State and against Tulane at the Cure Bowl in Orlando.
“I definitely surprised myself,” said Mitchell, who is listed at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds this season.
“I honestly expected to get redshirted (in 2018). But they developed me with plays, and I just developed pretty quickly with that and kind of took a liking to it.”
By season’s end, Mitchell and Robinson essentially were splitting time.
A transformation of Mitchell’s already solid body frame helped to make that possible.
“You know, I was about 290 pounds,” Mitchell said of his arrival at UL in the summer of last year. “So I thought I was in a good spot.
“But they kind of dropped me a little bit in weight, and kind of built my body back up with good muscle.”
By the start of the 2018 season, he was ready to play right away.
But midseason, he, Robinson and Spencer Gardner all were getting turns at left tackle.
UL sophomore Max Mitchell (74) is playing two roles for the Cajuns at left tackle and left guard after Ken Marks went down with a knee injury that required season-ending ACL surgery. (Photo: Michael O. Curley/Special to the Advertiser)
By season’s end, though, it was mostly him and Robinson — and by then Mitchell felt as comfortable as any veteran would.
Gaining that experience, in fact, went a long way in helping Mitchell to take on the larger role he has this season — mostly, he said, by understanding how to handle “the crowd, and just the pressures of the game.”
During his time at UL, Mitchell has taken practice reps on both sides of the offensive line — at every spot except center.
But the Cajuns are set on the right side with standouts Kevin Dotson at guard and Robert Hunt at tackle, so Mitchell — who played right tackle at Neville — has settled in on the left.
About halfway into preseason camp, he edged out Robinson for the No. 1 spot at left tackle.
“Me and Rico were in a rotation,” Mitchell said, “and I just slowly started taking more reps with the 1s, and started increasing my level of play.
“We just kind of moved forward and eased into it, and about a week or two before game day (Cajun coaches) said, ‘Go with the 1s, for sure.’ That’s kind of when I knew.”
But in addition to his usual reps at tackle, Mitchell also took some camp reps at guard.
It’s a good thing for the Cajuns that he did.
Because in UL’s season-opening loss to Mississippi State at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, starting senior left guard Ken Marks went down with a knee injury that required season-ending ACL surgery.
News and Notes: Two Cajuns to have season-ending surgeries
For a while against the Bulldogs, Mitchell — also offered by FCS Southland Conference-member Northwestern State — slid over to guard and Robinson played at tackle.
True freshman O’Cyrus Torrence later stepped in at guard and Mitchell moved back to tackle.
In last week’s 35-14 home win over Liberty, Mitchell started again at tackle, Torrence started at guard and Mitchell went to guard when Torrence needed a spell.
“It was definitely a curveball,” Mitchell said of Marks’ injury.
“But I’ve taken reps at guard during practice, and kind of prepared in case our left guard did go down.”
Actually, he said, it was more like “semi-prepared.”
“I had some reps under my belt,” Mitchell said.
“It wasn’t as comfortable as tackle, for sure. But, you know, you get it done.”
The biggest difference for Mitchell playing tackle vs. guard came down to his stance and rules in his head for what he was required to do in certain circumstances.
“You kind of have to take into account what the center’s doing,” he said, “and it’s a little more complicated at guard.
“You have somebody on the (left) side of you this time, so you’ve got to know what they’re doing too.”
Teammates, however, did not feel as if Mitchell or Torrence missed a beat when Marks went down.
“I’m really just impressed with their composure,” senior Dotson said with reference to the two youngsters.
“When they got in the game, there was not a ‘What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?’ It was, ‘All right, I got it,’ and they’re making calls and doing what they’re supposed to do, so we don’t have to slow down the play for them so they can learn it.”
Coming out of last season, the Cajuns were supposed to be senior-laden on the line with all five starters back — Robinson, Marks, Dotson, Hunt and center Cole Prudhomme.
But Prudhomme tore his ACL late in spring drills, and has been replaced by former walk-on Shane Vallot, a third-year sophomore.
Mitchell unseated Robinson.
And Torrence is now starting in Marks’ old spot.
The line that was old no longer is.
Yet, Mitchell, who leans on Hunt and Dotson to learn how they communicate, sees no cracks.
And there certainly seemed none for UL against Liberty, as the Cajuns rolled up 407 rushing yards including 129 and one touchdown by Trey Ragas, 111 by Raymond Calais Jr., 74 and one TD by Elijah Mitchell and 50 from Chris Smith.
“We’re still solid,” Mitchell said.
“Shane Vallot really stepped up. He’s very knowledgeable of the offense. He knows what he’s doing. We can play fast there. Then O’Cyrus stepped up and really, really took charge of that left guard position there when I moved back to tackle. He knows what he’s doing.
“And I think we’re really fully confident,” Mitchell said, “in what we’re doing.”
It’s a sense of confidence Mitchell did not necessarily feel he had when he first came to UL, which won its final regular-season game last year at UL Monroe to win the Sun Belt’s West Division and get into the inaugural SBC title game.
Since then, though, his pass blocking has gotten better, as has his knowledge of the game.
It boils down, Mitchell said, to “just being more confident with my calls I’m making, and just how fast I can play the game. I’m also stronger.”
And that’s largely, Napier suggested, because of the base he developed back home in Monroe.
Named “The Most Beautiful Public High School in Louisiana” by Archaeological Digest in 2017, Neville is the same place where current UL offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Rob Sale played.
It was there, Napier suggests, that the picture-perfect foundation was laid for Mitchell to be doing what he is now.
“They’ve got a great offseason program,” Napier said.
“Max was mature as a competitor. He’d played in the big game. He was physically developed enough to play early, and certainly right now he’s … a very valuable player on our team.”