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Georgia loss still is a gain for Bulls

USF linebacker Kawika Mitchell left the 'Dawgs for more playing time. Now he has Butkus Award potential.

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 30, 2001


If his name were Steve Smith or Joe Johnson or Bob Brown, South Florida's climb to national recognition in football might be prolonged a little.

But Kawika Mitchell never has had a problem with people noticing his name -- or his game.

A blue-chip recruit out of Winter Park Lake Howell who transferred to USF from Georgia in 1999, Kawika Uilani Mitchell officially took his place as USF's marquee defensive player last week when he was one of 69 linebackers from across the nation named to the Butkus Award watch list.

"It's a good award and I'm happy to be nominated, but really, our whole linebacking crew could be nominated," Mitchell said. "I knew if I worked hard enough I'd become good one day and be able to reach that goal."

If junior quarterback Marquel Blackwell is USF's signature offensive player, then it is Mitchell on defense. A few months after arriving on campus after a redshirt season at Georgia, Mitchell, 6 feet 2 and 255 pounds, started eight of 11 games in the fall of 1999 and finished third on the team with 69 tackles.

Last season he started all 11 games at weakside linebacker and tallied a team-best 77 tackles. He has two years of eligibility left to garner national recognition.

Coach Jim Leavitt said Mitchell's attitude is what has set him apart.

"Kawika comes to practice every day with a demeanor of perfection. He wants to improve every day," Leavitt said. "He wants to be at his best at what he does. He's very professional about things he does.

"If we don't have Kawika in there, we drop way off."

Mitchell said preparation has been the key.

"I feel like I'm a smart player, I try to learn all my assignments before the game," he said. "That's the most important thing. Then once I get out there, if I feel comfortable, I feel like I can just run around and make plays."

The Butkus designation culminates a splendid summer for Mitchell, 21. In June he was engaged to longtime girlfriend Billie McCook, whom he has known since eighth grade in his hometown of Casselberry.

While Mitchell and McCook went out to dinner one night, teammate Mark Feldman set up some candles in Mitchell's apartment. When they returned, Mitchell said he needed a drink and reached into the refrigerator, but instead he pulled out the ring.

"I got down on my knee, and she was like, 'What are you doing?' " Mitchell said. "We've been going out for so long and everyone knew it was going to happen, but I surprised her."

Mitchell was born in Hawaii. Kawika is a common local name that translates to David. His middle name, Uilani, means "heavenly gift," and was chosen because Mitchell had an older brother die shortly after birth just nine months before Mitchell was born.

Kawika (pronounced Kuh-WEEK-uh) went from routine to routinely mispronounced when Mitchell moved to Kentucky at age 3 and then to Central Florida when he was 7.

"However (kids) could make fun of it, they would," Mitchell said. "Now, everybody, they like it now."

It was his fiancee who made an interesting observation when the Butkus list was announced: A couple of Georgia linebackers whom Mitchell was stuck behind on the depth chart, Boss Bailey and Will Witherspoon, also are nominated.

"My two friends from Georgia, they were true freshmen when I was, but I felt like (the coaches) weren't giving me a chance," Mitchell said. "I felt like I could have been playing with them, and (being nominated for the Butkus) proves it to me a little bit."

Mitchell, who had visited Notre Dame, Florida and Miami in high school before choosing Georgia, only considered USF when he was thinking about transferring. He had heard good things about it from another Georgia-to-USF transfer, Mike Usry. It was close to home and the timing was ideal: Mitchell wouldn't have to sit out a year as is customary for transfers because the Bulls were I-AA.

He had four years of eligibility -- beginning immediately -- and most of that time would be spent playing for a I-A program on the rise.

"That was the whole purpose of the transfer," Mitchell said. "It has worked out great."

* * *

TONIGHT'S GAME: USF at Northern Illinois, Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Ill., 7:30. TV: Ch. 32.

Kawika Mitchell

AGE: 21.

YEAR/MAJOR: Junior/interdisciplinary social sciences.

POSITION: Weakside linebacker.

FAMILY: Father Charles Mitchell, mother Judy Wilbur, stepfather Keith Wilbur, brothers Mike (32) and Coogan (26), and sisters Sophia (30), Michelle (29) and Venus (28).

HOMETOWN/HIGH SCHOOL: Casselberry/Winter Park Lake Howell.

FAVORITE MOVIE: Apocalypse Now.

FAVORITE TV SHOW: Married with Children.

FAVORITE BOOK: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.

FAVORITE FOOD: Chocolate-chip ice cream.

FAVORITE MUSIC: Reggae.

FAVORITE CAR: Impala or any Cadillac (but he doesn't have a car).

FAVORITE TEAM: Oakland Raiders.

FAVORITE PLAYER: Ray Lewis.

PETS: Two dogs, boxers named Palu and Kiko.

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