By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009
Marko Mitchell was a basketball player who discovered football late in high school, coming to the Washington Redskins by way of two junior colleges and the University of Nevada. He was the wide receiver who turned heads by running the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds at the NFL combine. He was the prospect gifted with a 6-foot-4 frame that casts a shadow over most cornerbacks.
But Mitchell, a seventh-round pick, is still relatively unknown and unproven outside of Redskins Park. He has physical tools -- his size and speed attracted Washington, which graded him highly entering the draft -- but he lacks a football pedigree and is still learning his position.
And because he played in the Western Athletic Conference, a non-Bowl Championship Series conference, there is still the question of how he will adapt to the NFL.
"I really don't know," Mitchell said when asked recently where he would gauge his comfort on the practice field. "But I can really say I progressed from the first day. I'm understanding the offense more, and the guys I'm going against."
The Redskins have two established starting wide receivers in Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El. This season, they also will be counting on second-year wide receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas to have a heightened role in Coach Jim Zorn's version of the West Coast offense, which employed a number of three- and four-receiver formations last season.
Mitchell is among a cadre of young receivers on the periphery working to nudge James Thrash, a 12-year NFL veteran, out of the fifth wide receiver spot. Thrash, 34, has not attended the Redskins' organized team activities because of a neck injury. Others competing for the job include Roydell Williams and Trent Shelton.
"In college, you have a freshman or a sophomore or a walk-on," Mitchell said. "But here you have people who started on other NFL teams in front of you. You got to show you can play just the same way as a lot of these guys."
Mitchell did not start playing football until his junior year of high school. The York, Ala., native considered himself a basketball player first, and said he played football "because it was something to keep me occupied until basketball season started."
After playing two years of football, Mitchell drew interest from the University of Alabama. He did not score high enough on his SATs to attend, so he went to Itawamba Community College in Mississippi. He did not play football there because, he said, the school gave away a scholarship it had promised to him.
After one year, he transferred to Mesa Community College in Arizona. The coaches there had never seen Mitchell play. Mitchell had never visited the campus. But it did not take long before he made his mark.
"When I first met him, I figured he was another tall, skinny kid who wants to play receiver," Ron Daugherty, Mesa's wide receivers coach, said in a telephone interview. "I train receivers every Saturday, and I had a group of returning guys and a few fresh faces. And we were working on a Saturday, and he wouldn't drop a pass. It didn't matter where you threw it, the kid caught everything. After that Saturday, I went down and told the coach this kid could be pretty good."
Mitchell transferred to Nevada and played there for three seasons. He stood out because of his speed, size and ability to sprint past or reach over defensive backs. As a junior in 2007, Mitchell emerged as Nevada's top receiver, with 53 catches for 1,129 yards. His 21.3 yards per catch average that year ranked second nationally. As a senior, he was named first-team all-WAC.
But Mitchell's productivity was also a product of Nevada's relatively weak schedule and its unique pistol offense, which relied on a strong running game to set up the play-action pass.
"It was real good for Marko," Scott Baumgartner, the Nevada wide receivers coach, said by phone. "He made some big plays downfield. It gives us big play opportunities downfield off the play-action pass."
Mitchell is still learning the finer points of the wide receiver position: route running, getting in and out of breaks, using proper footwork. And while Mitchell's long strides give him speed to stretch the field, they do not engineer quickness.
"The nuances in terms of leverage and everything you can pick up," Randle El said of learning the receiver position. "But if you've got the ability to catch and run and just make plays when the ball's in the air, you've got your foot in the door. I think he's got his foot in the door. He can run fairly decent routes. He's shown he can make some plays. Now it's a matter of him doing it consistently, every time his name is called."