Kawika Mitchell was a promising Georgia LB who wanted to play. USF was happy to give him the chance.
Mike Canales, South Florida's offensive coordinator, likes to say these days that he did a great job recruiting Kawika Mitchell. He is exaggerating.
When Mitchell was a senior linebacker at Lake Howell High two years ago, he had more interesting people to take calls from than Canales. The coaches from Georgia, for example. And Florida, and Notre Dame, and Alabama, and Miami, and Georgia Tech Mitchell said he got scholarship offers from all of them, and chose Georgia. His dealings with USF were short and essentially fruitless. Canales did, however, manage to squeeze in one last sentence before letting Mitchell hang up the phone.
"I told him," Canales said Wednesday, snaking an arm around Mitchell at USF's media day, " "If things don't work out at Georgia, give us a call.' "
You can guess the rest.
It took only a year for Mitchell to decide things weren't working out at Georgia. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound linebacker found himself No. 2 on the depth chart at strongside linebacker behind another freshman. Even though he redshirted the 1998 season and felt like the Bulldogs coaches were happy to have him, he was plagued by visions of spending eternity as a backup. Georgia's linebackers are just that good, USF coach Jim Leavitt said.
"It's like this," Leavitt said, "Georgia may have some first-round draft picks in that linebacking group. That doesn't mean Kawika couldn't play in the NFL also. He may be a third-round pick. It doesn't mean Kawika can't play with the other linebackers at Georgia. He can and he would have _ he was second team."
Mitchell spent the early parts of the summer conditioning with his Bulldogs teammates, then told the coaches in July he was going home for a few weeks to think. He received permission to talk to the Bulls and soon decided he wasn't going back.
Time had changed his perspective.
"(USF) didn't look like that much to me" two years ago, Mitchell said. "But I guess once (you go to) that big-time program, you find out what's important to you. I'm coming to a program that can still win a (Division I-AA) championship. And I'll be able to play a lot more. I can help build the program and make history."
The Georgia coaches wanted him to stay, but he said they were gracious. They granted him a release in time for him to begin practices Monday with the 30 other USF newcomers. His teammates threw him a going-away party.
Mitchell wants to make one thing clear: He wasn't homesick. That's the word that came out of Georgia, but homesickness had nothing to do with it. Frankly, he never had a chance to get homesick.
His mother put 27,000 miles on her car making trips to Athens during a year that Mitchell didn't even play. She came for media day. She came for games. Mitchell's girlfriend also frequently made the trip _ 6 hours, 45 minutes to be exact.
By the time his mom made the (much shorter) drive to Raymond James Stadium for the Bulls' media day, her son had made himself at home on his new field and with his new coaches.
Mitchell, who has 4.53 speed in the 40-yard dash, impressed the USF staff with his workouts Monday and Tuesday. He likely will focus on middle linebacker, but also will learn both outside linebacker positions.
Junior captain Jason Butler, the 1998 defensive MVP, came out of the spring as the No. 1 middle linebacker, with Marshall Smith listed behind him.
But Mitchell and Leavitt expect Mitchell to quickly work onto the two-deep roster. Mitchell said he's looking forward to pushing his fellow linebackers _ and having them push him.
"He's only been out there a couple days and he's trying to learn all three (linebacker) positions, but he's got all the skills and he's very smart," defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz said. "We're anxious to see what he does in pads, because without pads on he's been very impressive."