CHARLOTTESVILLE — At every turn the past few weeks, Virginia Coach Mike London has tried to temper expectations for his first-ever five-star recruit.
When a reporter asks a question about freshman running back Taquan Mizzell, inevitably London will try to mention the other first-year players who have a chance to get on the field this year. London even tried to change Mizzell’s nickname from “Smoke” to “Mist,” joking that it was appropriate after he beat Mizzell in a game of pickup basketball recently.
But with every slick spin move and lightning-quick cut the past three days of practice, the intrigue behind what Mizzell could offer during his first season on campus only grows. Even London can’t deny it, try as he might.
“I gotta give it to him. He lived up to the nickname,” London said Tuesday. “He ran pretty well. He’s a young man that’s very talented.”
Mizzell is the latest highly touted Virginia Beach recruit to land in Charlottesville, joining cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and defensive end Eli Harold as a centerpiece to London’s rebuilding efforts at Virginia. But his role, and how much he’s able to contribute this year, remains to be resolved.
Even though the Cavaliers lost running back Clifton Richardson to transfer this offseason, they are well stocked in the backfield. Junior Kevin Parks figures to be the featured running back after leading the team in rushing a year ago with 734 yards while splitting time with Perry Jones. Junior Khalek Shepherd is also back and brings a big-play element.
But Mizzell, who gained 1,231 rushing yards and scored 39 total touchdowns as a senior at Bayside High last year, may be too good to keep off the field, with the sort of multi-dimensional skill set that could take him to the NFL some day. He was considered one of the top five high school tailbacks in the country by Rivals last year.
“I don’t look at it as if there’s pressure to perform because of [recruiting rankings],” Mizzell said Tuesday. “I think I put a lot of pressure on myself. I feel like I work hard, so hopefully I get a lot of results out of it.”
Over the first three days of practice, his quickness seemed to add another dimension to new offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s scheme, particularly when he got out in space. The Cavaliers have used him in traditional hand-offs and screens, and Mizzell said he can even be split out wide as a receiver if need be.
He also likes to point out that, “I weighed in at 193 pounds, but I’m stronger than I look.”
“Number one, can he handle all the formations and everything we have going in?” running backs coach Larry Lewis said last week when asked what Mizzell needed to show him to get on the field this fall. “Mentally, can he handle it? Physically, can he handle it? And can you do that and still go to school? I think you have to look at all those things as [with] any true freshman and evaluate what their worth is going to be because you get into school, then all of a sudden, you got a lot of things pulling from guys.
“Some guys are more mature, and I think that Mizzell is. As I look at him and I talk to him, I know football is very important to him. So I know that he’s going to get the work done in the classroom. He needs to play.”
Parks has noticed Mizzell’s insatiable desire to improve. The two have already developed a relationship and Parks noted, “he makes me want to work out.”
Mizzell could also play a role on special teams, where he was a dynamic kick and punt returner in high school. But he’s trying not to make demands about playing time, instead focusing on whatever the coaches ask of him.
Still, Mizzell is keenly aware of the impact freshmen like Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Miami’s Duke Johnson had in the ACC a year ago. He’d like to follow suit.
“I watched Duke a lot. Looking at him in high school, we were almost identical. You know, height, weight, all that,” Mizzell said of Johnson, who rushed for 947 yards and had 221 receiving yards with the Hurricanes last season. “So seeing how he performed, I don’t throw numbers out there for myself, but I do set goals for myself. I should be able to do it. Not talking down on Duke, but I should be able to do it, too.”