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The perfect fit

USF linebacker Kawika Mitchell says he'd love to join the Bucs, who just might be eyeing him on the first day of this weekend's NFL draft.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2003

TAMPA -- Kawika Mitchell spent his Saturday nights the past four autumns racking up tackles inside Raymond James Stadium.

If things break the right way this Saturday, Mitchell can keep his weekend itinerary; he'll just have to dial it back a day, to Sunday.

Mitchell, a 6-foot-1, 252-pound linebacker from South Florida, has escalated NFL draft boards with knock-'em-dead workouts and could be an option for Tampa Bay, which owns picks No. 64 and 97 at the ends of Rounds 2 and 3 plus two fourth-round picks.

"Really, it doesn't matter who picks me, but to stay in Tampa, that would be great," Mitchell said. "I've already been here for four years and I've played in Ray Jay for four years. I'd love to continue my career there."

A four-year starter for the Bulls, Mitchell improved every season. He holds USF's single-season (117) and career (367) tackle records, and he led the Bulls with 19 tackles for loss last season.

His physical numbers are as impressive as his productivity. He's strong (28 bench reps at 225 pounds), fast (4.62 40) and explosive (40-inch vertical leap), ranking at or near the top of all of the linebackers in the draft in each category.

He's also mature and experienced. This week Mitchell is enduring the dual stress of awaiting the draft and the any-day-now birth of his first child with wife Billie.

"Football has always been just football, but it's my job now. You have to prepare for everything you do like it's a job interview," said Mitchell, who transferred to USF after a redshirt season at Georgia. "It's so different than going from high school to college. There, everybody wanted you and you had your pick. Now, they pick you, so you better be ready."

By all accounts, the Bucs have been impressed, even though Mitchell's thick build is contrary to their linebacker prototype.

"The funniest team was the Bucs. They said, 'We like the kid, but he doesn't fit our mold,' " said Mitchell's agent, Rich DeLuca, who is familiar with Bucs linebackers from having represented Jeff Gooch. "After his pro day (at USF, where Mitchell produced his best numbers), they said, 'He's pretty much faster and jumps higher than anyone we've got, so what's the difference.'

"(Bucs defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin was walking off the field after (a workout with Mitchell), and he was real impressed. He's old school and Kawika's old school."

Others have been impressed, too. The Packers brought him to Green Bay for an interview and workout, and Mitchell said Baltimore, Cleveland, New England, Houston and Washington have expressed strong interest. A combine-specific workout program in Atlanta helped elevate his draft status.

"When I went to the combine, a lot of people knew of me, but not a lot about me," said Mitchell, who was married the day after Christmas. "Afterward, you could tell that they looked at me differently."

Mitchell, 23, and USF defensive end/linebacker Shurron Pierson, 20, who played just two seasons at USF, both could go on the first day. They would surpass tackle Kenyatta Jones, the first pick of the fourth round two years ago by New England, as the highest USF draftee.

"We had guys from Vanderbilt, Auburn, all over, and Kawika was a stud," said Melvyn Williams, the director of strength and conditioning at Infinite Sports, where Mitchell trained this spring. "The most impressive thing is his vertical. Kawika's lower body strength is some of the best I've seen."

Mitchell has few chinks besides USF's relative anonymity. He has been at his best against the best: In the Bulls' only nationally televised game, at Oklahoma, Mitchell registered 12 tackles, five for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.

He also has an aura of toughness. June 2, Mitchell, riding in the passenger seat, was launched through the windshield of a van that lost control on an I-4 exit ramp. He suffered only a minor shoulder injury and some bruises and scrapes. In every interview he was asked about the incident, including by the Bucs and Jon Gruden.

"It was impressive (meeting Gruden)," Mitchell said. "He's really young; he could almost be one of the players. He's all about football. He reminded me of (USF coach Jim) Leavitt. Both get in early, stay late and want to win. Going to the Bucs would be perfect for me."

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