Coming out of halftime at Syracuse two weeks ago, USF led 14-13 and needed to get momentum back. One play later, receiver Carlton Mitchell streaked 85 yards down the Syracuse sideline into the end zone with another long reception, helping USF pull away for a 34-20 victory. "In the locker room we were talking about making big plays, getting momentum going," Mitchell said. "I didn't know I was going to be that guy, but we were all ready. My number was called, and I had to make a play."
Much is new about USF's offense this season — new coordinator Mike Canales, new receivers coach Phil McGeoghan, and with the injury to Matt Grothe last month, new quarterback B.J. Daniels. But part of its success is a new Carlton Mitchell.
"In the summer, I really started to see a different Carlton," Canales said. "His mind-set changed, and his attitude changed.
"His mind-set was to be more focused and concentrate on what's going to make him a better player."
In USF's 5-0 start, Mitchell has four catches of 50 yards or more, giving him seven for his career. That's two more than any player in USF history. As the No. 21 Bulls prepare for tonight's showdown with No. 8 Cincinnati at Raymond James Stadium, the junior is closing in on other records, and Canales said Mitchell is playing with new confidence.
When Canales scripts plays, he said, he looks for "FTS" plays, which is his shorthand for "feed the studs."
"Try to get the ball in their hands," he said. "We try to get these guys the ball to get their swagger going. You build their confidence, and all of a sudden, they want it again and again."
Searching for that confidence led Mitchell to retired Bucs receiver Mark Carrier, who worked with him in the spring not only on technique, but having the confidence to match his physical skills.
"He has a lot of talent," Carrier, 43, said of Mitchell, who starred at Gaither High. "He's a prototypical receiver, 6-4, good hands, runs a 4.3(-second 40-yard dash). I think he realized this could be a big year for him. The main thing we worked on was him having confidence in knowing what to expect from opposing defenses."
That carried over into the fall, when Mitchell repeated the same plays over and over in practice until coaches had convinced him he knew how a defensive back would respond.
"I saw a light go on in his head, like 'Wow! What we're repping is going to be there if we trust our technique and trust the scheme,' " McGeoghan said.
Confidence is only part of Mitchell's return to the form that saw him catch three passes of 50 or more yards as a redshirt freshman in 2007.
Mitchell said he had to eliminate off-field distractions that took his focus away from football last season, when he lost playing time because of inconsistent play.
To eliminate those distractions, Mitchell's mother, Angela, got him a new cell phone before two-a-days started and called it his "Focus Phone."
"Only my teammates, my mom, my coaches had that number," Mitchell said. "I kept my regular phone off so I wouldn't have outside distractions. It helped a lot. It was something I had to sacrifice, but I'm glad I did."
Mitchell's 377 receiving yards are more than twice the total of his closest teammate, and his 21 catches are 10 more than any other Bull.
Cincinnati hasn't allowed a pass play of longer than 26 yards all season. And it has faced two offenses, Oregon State and Miami (Ohio), that average more passing yards than USF.
Much of the talk this week has been about the Bearcats offense, which is averaging 42 points. The Bulls aren't far behind at 37 points, and Canales said his offense will be motivated to pull some of the spotlight away from Cincinnati.
"We're not shabby, either," Canales said. "We're doing some darn good things, and we're using that (motivation). It's a weapon."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.