In any other season, Derrick Mitchell’s emergence on the Florida State defensive line might come as a pleasant surprise.
But given the rash of injuries sustained recently by FSU’s defensive tackles, it might well turn out to be crucial.
Just a few days after the Seminoles saw tackles Eddie Goldman, Nile Lawrence-Stample and Justin Shanks all go down with lower-leg injuries, coach Jimbo Fisher said that Mitchell, a fourth-year junior, has carved out a place among FSU’s best defensive linemen.
“I think Derrick Mitchell is playing as good as anyone we have up front,” Fisher said. “I think Derrick’s doing a great job. He’s really emerging into a very good football player.”
That’s high praise for a player who entered fall camp thought to be little more than a depth player, if that.
A former four-star prospect from First Coast High in Jacksonville, Mitchell arrived at FSU with a promising pedigree.
Then a rash of back troubles kept Mitchell sidelined for most of his first three seasons.
After redshirting in 2011, Mitchell required surgery to repair two bulging disks in the fall of 2012. He projected for a six-week recovery. Instead, Mitchell missed the entire season.
He had a nice start last year (two tackles and a tackle for loss in eight games), but another tweak to his back sent Mitchell back to the training table.
He could only watch as his teammates put together one of the nation’s top defenses on the way to a national title.
“It was really tough, really tough,” Mitchell said. “It was really tough last year when I worked so hard throughout the camp process and I ended up tweaking it again.”
Given the way the last few years went, Mitchell understands that few thought he had much chance to make an impact this fall.
But after making it through FSU’s offseason conditioning drills with no ill effects, Mitchell had a feeling that he might finally be recapturing the explosiveness and agility that helped him pile up 17.5 sacks as a high school senior.
“I felt, for once, really healthy,” Mitchell said. “[For the first time] since I’ve been here.”
Fisher confirmed Mitchell’s suspicions in August when he said that Mitchell had “by far” the best camp of his career. He later made waves by naming Mitchell a starter at defensive end before FSU’s Week 1 contest against Oklahoma State.
Mitchell has since contributed five tackles in two games, a number somewhat skewed by the fact that FSU played against The Citadel’s triple-option offense last week.
“He’s evolving into his role,” said FSU guard Josue Matias, who often matches up with Mitchell in practice. “He’s become a great player for us, which we need right now with a couple guys hurt.”
At 6-4, 303 pounds, Mitchell can play inside or outside. And that’s a considerable boost for an FSU defense that might be without three of its top DTs when it faces Clemson next week.
Fisher last said that Goldman, Lawrence-Stample and Shanks are all being evaluated day to day, which means that Mitchell could be front and center when the top-ranked Seminoles host the No.24 Tigers.
He didn’t hesitate when asked if he would feel comfortable starting Mitchell against Clemson’s uptempo offense.
“In a heartbeat,” Fisher said. “He’s playing as good as anybody. He’s played a lot of ball, played almost the whole game the other day and probably played the best of any front guy that we had.”