ATHENS – In the first half of the Kentucky game this past Saturday, Malcolm Mitchell fielded a kickoff eight yards deep in his end zone. He took off to bring it out before Georgia’s Kyle Karempelis jumped in front with an emphatic stop sign at the goal line. Mitchell slammed on the brakes, then gave Karempelis a disgusted wave of contempt before taking a reluctant knee.
“I apologized later,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “I told Kyle, no matter what I say, do what you have to do and, if I try to run out of there, just tackle me right there in the end zone.”
Such is Mitchell’s mentality. He rarely fields a punt or a kick or takes a handoff or catches a pass he doesn’t think he can take “to the house.” That confidence coupled with Mitchell’s unique set of athletic gifts has made him into one of the league’s most dynamic play-makers. It also makes him one of the most unpredictable.
“Any time you touch the ball it means opportunity,” Mitchell said. “It means a chance to make plays.”
Mitchell got back to the business of making plays in earnest against the Wildcats, and he hope it continues against No. 2 Florida this weekend in Jacksonville. The sophomore from Valdosta, who spent the first third of the season playing defensive back, is now back to playing wide receiver full time and has also become the Bulldogs primary kick returner.
Against Kentucky, Mitchell accounted 164 all-purpose yards, including 103 yards receiving on a career-best nine receptions. His all-purpose total was robbed of a 33-yard run on a fake punt that was nullified due to an illegal formation penalty.
“There’s no better feeling than having the ball in your hand,” Mitchell said. “You want to make a play. People around me are really good about telling me, ‘Look, you can’t make a play every play. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing and wait for it to come.’ But it just feels good to be out there contributing.”
It’s not like he wasn’t before now. Mitchell started the first four games of the season at cornerback as the Bulldogs negotiated the suspensions of two defensive backs. He had 12 tackles and three pass break-ups on defense.
The original plan was for Mitchell to eventually play both ways. But since the return of free safety Bacarri Rambo in Game 5, Mitchell has been full time on offense and special teams.
Along with three kickoff returns for 64 yards and the nullified fake-punt run Mitchell touched the ball 14 times against Kentucky. Georgia coaches hope he gets it at least that much every game the rest of the year, including Saturday against the Gators. Mitchell is thrilled with the developments.
“I didn’t realize I got it that much,” he said. “That’s good. It feels natural to me. Now it’s just a matter of getting back in that groove.”
Mitchell’s role is starting to resemble the one the Bulldogs envisioned for him after last season. He finished with 702 all-purpose yards in just 11 games to earn Freshman All-SEC honors last year.
“Malcolm loves football, obviously,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He loves offense, defense and special teams. He loves to play, and he wants to make plays and be significant every time he’s in the game. We think that he has a lot of bravery and speed and agility to be a good kick return man. You have to have some nerve back there. He’s starting to become much more productive as a wide receiver and getting more opportunities and getting more comfortable. So, I hope he continues to improve in all areas because he’s a very talented guy.”
Mitchell’s confidence has gotten him into trouble from time to time, too. He fielded a bouncing punt in a crowd against Missouri and ended up fumbling the ball away and had difficulty making decisions overall as a punt returner, generally choosing to field it no matter the situation. As a result, he had to relinquish those duties to junior Rhett McGowan, who’s less of a play-maker but a better decision-maker.
“That’s OK,” Mitchell said. “If the coaches think Rhett’s the best guy for the job, I’m all for it. I’m over there on the sideline rooting for him harder than anybody.”
Of course, special teams play will be crucial against Florida, which is ranked among the nation’s best in both coverage and returns. The Gators created two special teams turnovers in a 44-11 win over South Carolina last week in Gainesville.
It should come as no surprise that Mitchell is not at all intimidated. In fact, he’s particularly pumped because he was unable to play in this game last year due to a hamstring injury. Mitchell is nicknamed “Tampa” because he lived there from age 2 to 12 before moving back to Valdosta.
“They run hard, so we’ve got to block hard,” Mitchell said. “They’ve got a lot of good players on their kickoff team, but we’ve got a lot of good people on our kick return team. We’ve just got to execute and take care of that like we do in any phase of the game.”