ATHENS – This is not the first time Malcolm Mitchell made a dramatic preseason switch of positions. When Rance Gillespie showed up as the new coach at Valdosta High, one of his first moves was to move Mitchell from cornerback and make him a full-time wide receiver.
Two years later, Mitchell is making a similar move, only this time it’s with the Georgia Bulldogs and it’s from offense to defense.
“We went backwards with it,” said Gillespie, who wanted to feature Mitchell in his new spread offensive attack at Valdosta. “I felt like he was probably an offensive player. Having to learn an entire new offense, we concentrated with him on the offensive side of the ball. Once he got that down, we did move him back over to defense later in the year. Maybe the sixth or seventh game, we started spot-playing him on defense and as we got deeper into the season he played more and more both ways.”
Gillespie’s move proved genius. Mitchell nearly matched the state record for receiving yards in a season with 1,419.
The Bulldogs hope that formula works in inverse this fall. Mitchell was arguably Georgia’s most explosive wide receiver as a true freshman. He made the majority of his 45 catches for 665 yards before a mid-season hamstring injury sidelined him for four games.
But because of attrition and suspensions in the secondary — starting corners Sanders Commings and Branden Smith will have to sit out some early-season games — the Bulldogs have moved Mitchell to cornerback for spring practice. He’s expected to play on that side of the ball for at least for the first couple of games next season.
“In order for Malcolm to really be able to function back there, I felt like he needed the entire spring to really know what to do and get his technique to where he could really play SEC football when the season begins,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “In the offseason my guess is that he will be running routes half the time and playing defense half the time. But if you tried to split practice and split meetings in the spring, he’d get lost.”
Wednesday represented Day 2 of the Great Experiment.
“It is [like high school], but it’s more intense by like 10,” Mitchell said afterward. “The schemes that Coach [Todd] Grantham uses, the tempo, it’s just a lot more difficult. In high school guys didn’t have the same ability that I had. So I could run out there and play around and still do good on defense. Same way on offense. Now I have to actually learn everything and get it down.”
Actually learning the defense has been a sobering experience for Mitchell.
“Just coming in here these first couple of days has opened my eyes to how much work is going to have to be put into it to doing what I want to do,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell described his first experience in the defensive team meeting as “terrible.”
“I didn’t know what they were saying,” he said with a laugh. “It sounded like a different language. They were using words I’ve never heard before.”
And therein lay the challenge for Mitchell. He’s extremely athletic, agile and fast. No one doubts his physical ability to do what is required. But understanding the complex coverages and terminology of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme is where the difficulty is.
“Right now we’re just trying to fill him up with as much information as we can,” senior safety Shawn Williams said. “He’s a young guy and we’ve got to bring him along.”
Said Mitchell: “I don’t know what they’re talking about half the time, but all the guys help me. I’m working with the 2s right now and Connor [Norman] is telling me everything. He makes sure I know what to do.”
Mitchell has already wowed his teammates with a one-handed, over-the-shoulder grab in a drill on defending a fade route. And when the task is to simply line up and cover the guy on the other side of the line, he’s almost unbeatable.
“26 looks tremendous to me,” sophomore cornerback Damian Swann said, referring to Mitchell’s jersey number. “It’s like he hasn’t missed a beat.”
How much he plays each side of the ball in the fall, Mitchell said he’s neither thinking nor worrying about it right now. And Gillespie said that’s just the tact his former pupil should be taking.
“I don’t think there’s any question he has the physical tools to play on defense and he’s already proven he can play offensive side of the ball at that level,” Gillespie said. “It’s a matter of how quick he can pick up on all the different coverage schemes that are being installed. But I totally understand what Georgia is doing and Malcolm does, too. Just the type of kid he is, Malcolm is always going to do what’s best for the team.”
NOTES: Senior cornerback Sanders Commings pleaded guilty Wednesday to simple battery and disorderly conduct in Athens-Clarke County State Court. He was fined $200, sentenced to 12 months probation, 40 hours of community service, drug and alcohol evaluation and anger management. The charges stemmed from a Jan. 21 incident in which he was accused of striking an ex-girlfriend. A starting cornerback for the Bulldogs, he has been suspended for Georgia’s first two games of the season. . . . Sophomore linebacker Ramik Wilson missed his second day of practice. His father passed away this past week. Wilson is scheduled to return Thursday. . . . Players received their SEC East championship rings on Wednesday.