Kawika Mitchell compares favorably with the nation's top linebackers.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002
TAMPA -- Kawika Mitchell can't put his finger on it, at least not on any particular reasons for it. But he knows it as surely as anyone who has watched South Florida play this season.
Mitchell is on a mission.
"He's hustling to the ball like no one I've ever seen," USF safety J.R. Reed said.
Mitchell, a senior middle linebacker, leads the nation with 12 tackles for loss, 3.0 per game.
"He's done a great job for us and he deserves the accolades," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "Nobody works harder every day in practice than Kawika. He never has a bad practice."
A transfer from Georgia in 1999, Mitchell has been good from Day 1. Last season he ratcheted it up to very good, setting a school record with 106 tackles.
This season? Scary good.
With 47 tackles in four games, he is on pace for 129. Mitchell is so locked in he is somewhat reluctant to talk about it, lest it snaps him out of the zone.
"I just feel comfortable right now," Mitchell said. "I feel confident and really focused."
Last weekend at Oklahoma, Mitchell was a one-man wrecking crew in the nationally televised 31-14 loss, making five tackles for loss, including the stick of the game. With the Sooners at the USF 1-yard line, Mitchell, looking like Brian Urlacher, shot the gap and crunched running back Quentin Griffin for a 2-yard loss.
In the 37-6 win over Northern Illinois on Sept. 7, Mitchell spearheaded a defense that held Michael Turner, the nation's leading rusher with 729 yards, to 66 on 29 carries.
Leavitt has been so impressed, he asked rhetorically this week if there was a better linebacker in America. It's a legitimate question. Mitchell, a Butkus Award candidate, compares favorably to anyone in the linebacker-drenched Sunshine State, including Miami's Jonathan Vilma and D.J. Williams, Florida State's Kendyll Pope and Michael Boulware and Florida's Bam Hardmon.
"My biggest thing is that I feel extremely focused right now," Mitchell said. "I want to try to keep that. I want to win, I want my senior year to be special. I'm trying to build memories right now."
Listed at 6 feet 2, 255 pounds, but probably closer to 6-1 and "about 250," Mitchell moved from the weak side to the middle this season. Having the full range of responsibilities suits him perfectly.
"I like being in the middle of everything," said Mitchell, who is sporting an unruly mane of hair this season. "I like being the vocal one on the defense, I like talking to everybody. I've always done that, even in high school (at Winter Park Lake Howell). It's a comfortable spot."
A few other variables might be contributing to his rise in performance. An auto accident this summer, in which Mitchell, in the passenger seat, was launched through the windshield but escaped with a minor shoulder injury, has altered his perspective.
He also has a more settled life than the average college player. Mitchell, who turns 23 Thursday, has been engaged for more than a year to Billie McCook. They are expecting a child in March.
"She's right there with me. She wants me to accomplish everything I want to accomplish," Mitchell said. "I don't go out much like some guys. My life's a little more laid-back."
Serene off the field, Mitchell is channeled fury on it.
"He's a definite leader. He picks things up in practice, voices his opinions," Reed said. "It's hand in hand -- he's stepped up leadership-wise and on the field.
"He's picked on me a little bit, saying, "When are you going to make big plays?' This is his senior year and he's going all out."
Mitchell was considered an NFL prospect before the season started, and he is playing like a first-day (top three rounds) draft pick. He bench presses 410 pounds, has a 36-inch vertical leap and says he is certain he can surpass his 4.58 time in the 40. "I don't think about (the NFL). The times I've thought about it, I've gotten off track," Mitchell said. "Right now, I'm trying to focus day in and day out on the things I need to improve. If I can do that, then I'll be happy and we'll play well. And if the NFL happens then, it happens."