TAMPA — Terrence Mitchell hasn't taken that first big hit yet, but for the first time in six months the USF sophomore receiver is back on a football field. Mitchell missed most of last season with concussion symptoms after a violent collision in a September win against UTEP.
"I'm just excited to be back out there. It's been a long six, seven months without football," Mitchell said last week as the Bulls opened a month of spring drills. "It's just amazing to get back out there and be with my brothers and be able to play and run around with them."
Mitchell, one of the fastest but smallest players on the team at 5 feet 10 and 158 pounds, was injured making a tackle on a UTEP fake punt in the fourth game of the season. A full-speed hit sent him to a hospital and forced him out of the last eight games of the season (and ultimately resulted in taking a medical redshirt).
He has been symptom-free since the end of last year, and the best step in his recovery was returning to the practice field and the company of his teammates.
"I definitely appreciate football more. It can be taken away from you," said the former Hillsborough High standout. "I saw that in September, that it can be taken away from you quick. I appreciate every moment being out there now."
Mitchell played cornerback the first part of his freshman year in 2010 then shifted to receiver, learning the position over the next year and catching seven passes for 60 yards in the first four games last season. Despite a reputation as a fearsome hitter in high school, he has embraced his role on offense, where his speed could give the Bulls a big-play factor that was missing much of last season. And his background on defense has helped him in knowing what the opposing players covering him are likely to do.
"I feel very at home," said Mitchell, a freshman All-America selection as a punt returner in 2010. "Especially switching from corner, it's not as hard as some pure receivers that have to learn how to read coverages. I go out there and see the safety's this far off the hash, I know it's Cover 2."
Having Mitchell back is a welcome sight for teammates and coaches, who weren't sure that would happen when he was lying motionless on the field at Raymond James Stadium.
"Every once in a while in your coaching career, you see things and you kind of shudder," offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said. "We were in the (press) box, obviously, and we could hear it in the box.
"It was a little scary. You think of it as if it's your son. That's your reaction. They're kind of your kids, you're around them so often. The concern for him was the first thing."
Fitch has moved Mitchell from being an outside receiver inside to the slot, where his time working as a receiver has made him a more refined route runner, combining his natural speed with more polished technique. If there's any tentative nature to Mitchell after last year's injury, Fitch hasn't seen it.
"I don't know if he has that gene to slow down. It's who he is," Fitch said. "We certainly don't want him to lose it, but we have to be smart with him too, and keep him healthy."
Mitchell said he wanted to return late last season, knowing he could help the Bulls as they struggled to a 1-6 Big East record and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2005. But coach Skip Holtz told him he was taking a medical redshirt, something he accepted, knowing it was for his own best interests and that would give him a second chance at his second season with the Bulls.
"He sat me down and said, 'We're more concerned about your safety.' I was like, 'Yes, sir.' I redshirted," Mitchell said. "You want to go help. That's the competitor in you. You have to listen to the head man sometimes. Everybody's got a boss."