- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Malcolm Mitchell is having something of an identity crisis.
Is he a defensive back? Is he a receiver? Even Mitchell doesn't know.
"I can't even answer that question. I've been lost in that same question myself," said Mitchell, who began working with Georgia's cornerbacks during spring practice after earning Freshman All-SEC honors at receiver last season. "What am I?"
The truth is that he's both -- or at least he will be this fall, when he becomes one of the few players in a major college football program who contributes heavily on both offense and defense and possibly special teams.
Using defensive players on offense is nothing new at Georgia, which has recently featured cornerbacks Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith and then-safety Alec Ogletree on offense, in limited roles. The scale of the Mitchell Plan, though, makes it unique.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt maintains that Mitchell could eventually split his time evenly between offense and defense. For purposes of comparison, Boykin -- who won the Paul Hornung Award last season as the nation's most versatile player -- spent only 3 percent of his time on offense. Predominantly a cornerback and return man, Boykin played 970 total snaps in 2011 -- 69.3 per game, including a season-high 86 snaps in the Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State -- but just less than 30 plays on offense.
Smith also chips in intermittently on offense, but he barely practices with the offense at all. He knows a handful of specialty plays, and he often finds out in the moment that his services are required.
"I don't know when I'm going to play offense until that day of the game," Smith said. "It might not even be at the hotel, it might just be on the field. They might just call my name up."
He's the Champ
The more reasonable comparison for what Georgia coach Mark Richt has in mind for Mitchell almost seems unreasonable. Richt hopes to use Mitchell this fall much like the Bulldogs employed Champ Bailey in 1998 -- an All-America season that only ranks among the best in program history.
Bailey finished that season with 52 tackles and three interceptions at cornerback -- winning the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation's best defensive player -- and added 744 receiving yards and five touchdowns, 261 kickoff return yards and 49 yards on punt returns.
But that kind of season boggles the minds of even players who have juggled multiple roles.
"To do it throughout the entire game -- I'm not saying he can't do it -- but [playing cornerback] and playing offense as well, that's a tough task," Boykin said this spring, when asked about the feasibility of the plan for Mitchell.
Bailey played 1,070 snaps in 1998, including 100-plus in seven of the last eight games. And practically nobody, at Georgia or anywhere else, has managed to stay on the field that much in any season since then.
"Can Malcolm stand up to 100 plays a game? I don't know, but the more plays he can play, the more you'll see him on both sides of the ball," Richt said. "But if you took a percentage, early on it's going to be heavy defense, a little offense. But I think as the season goes on, the defensive reps will lessen and the offensive reps will grow to the point where it could be a 50-50 proposition."
For his part, even Mitchell marvels at what Bailey accomplished in 1998, calling his achievements that season "amazing." And yet the sophomore hardly seems fazed by the inherent difficulty of what he is about to attempt.
As a star at Valdosta (Ga.) High School, Mitchell said it was not unusual for him to be on the field for 90 percent of the snaps in a big game -- for instance, when his Wildcats faced hated crosstown rival Lowndes.
Playing both ways is nothing new, although he realizes he now faces a significantly higher level of competition. Still, he offers a matter-of-fact response when observers marvel at the notion that he'd try to accumulate such a high snap count in modern-day SEC football.
"I look at some of the basketball players, some of the golfers, some of the baseball players and ask, 'How do they do that?' I'm pretty sure they wonder the same stuff about us," Mitchell said. "It's just something they're not accustomed to doing and just something that we probably get used to."
Mitchell was referring to his football teammates, although none of them fully understand what he's doing, either. It's hard enough for many of them to learn the offensive playbook, much less the defensive scheme as well.
However, Mitchell's oldest acquaintance on the team -- his middle school and high school teammate Jay Rome -- has made a fairly similar attempt. Rome walked on with Georgia's basketball team last season at the end of football season and said there is some parallel between the two endeavors.
"I know when I went into basketball season, I know I had to learn a whole different playbook and everything. So it is pretty tough mentally on you, as well as physically," he said.
But Rome has known Mitchell long enough to know why he can succeed in such an attempt when other players with similar physical tools wouldn't bother.
"I know and have been around, knowing Malcolm for a long time, since middle school, and he's always one of those guys where if you tell him he can't do something, he's going to work that much harder to do it," Rome said. "... When everybody's like, 'Oh is it really hard to try to do both?' I mean, yeah it's kind of hard, but when you just love it like that, you don't look at it as a job or as work. You just look at it as being able to do something you love every day."
Back in the day
Georgia has a longstanding tradition of converting offensive players into star defensive backs. In the early 1980s, some of the Bulldogs' top performers in the secondary -- including Terry Hoage, Scott Woerner, Chris Welton, John Little and D.J. Jones -- played quarterback in high school before putting their athleticism to use in defensive roles.
Woerner, an option quarterback in high school, was one of the most versatile players in the modern era of Georgia football. He starred at cornerback and as a kick returner on the 1980 national championship team -- and he wanted to play some offense, too.
"Fortunately I was lucky enough to get to return punts and kicks, so I got to get my hands on the ball a little," Woerner said. "I would like to have played in the secondary and lined up at wide receiver or something along those lines."
Chuckling, he added, "Coach [Vince] Dooley always said that, but he never gave me that opportunity."
Woerner believes Mitchell can juggle offense and defense, but "in a limited capacity," because it's simply more difficult to excel against the modern-day athletes who dot SEC rosters.
"I don't think you could go full speed on both sides of the ball and never come off of the field. That wouldn't happen because the guys you're going against have that much talent," Woerner said. "Back then it might have been a little different, but now, everybody that steps on the field belongs there and the guy you're facing, he's going to win as many as you're going to win. And in the fourth quarter you're going to be fatigued regardless. We all were, even though we only went one way."
In truth, Georgia's coaches are flying blind as they attempt to guide Mitchell through preparations to play multiple roles. They are better prepared than many of their counterparts would be, because of their experiences with players like Boykin and Smith, but this is a different animal.
Mitchell is working almost exclusively with the defense early in preseason practice, although Richt said he intends to allow Mitchell to practice with the receivers this month in order for him to be available on offense during the Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo.
The key, Richt said, is not overworking Mitchell's body -- and determining the proper workload is difficult.
"[The question is] how much," Richt said. "We did it in the spring as far as, 'Hey, if you're free, run some routes,' and then he pulls a hamstring, so you've got to worry about how much volume can a guy take on a given day. As we're starting out in camp, my goal is not to have Malcolm exhausted or with some type of a pull, so he's going strictly defense until we feel like it's time to give him a taste of offense."
Finalizing a plan
Mitchell already had a solid understanding of Georgia's offensive scheme after last season, when he ranked second on the team with 45 catches and 665 receiving yards. That allowed him to devote nearly all of his practice time this spring and thus far in preseason camp to his new role at cornerback.
Because of his competitiveness and athleticism, he already ranks among Georgia's top talents at that position. But Richt wants to make sure he fully comprehends his cornerback duties before dividing his time between meeting rooms.
"We want him to be able to function every down, or any given down or distance or situation that might arise," Richt said. "I'm not saying he's going to play every single play on defense because I don't know if anybody plays every down nowadays. But I want him to understand our scheme well enough where [defensive coordinator Todd] Grantham will have no limitations to what he might want to do or call because Malcolm's in the game. So we'll get him ready to play as much defense as he's needed to play."
That won't help solve Mitchell's identity crisis, however, nor will it allow him to narrow his focus on excelling at one position -- which would conceivably strengthen his eventual NFL draft status.
Mitchell is not interested in helping pro scouts determine his ideal position yet, though. He'll even be happy if they have to guess.
"If I get to them asking that question, that means I'm in a good position," Mitchell said with a laugh. "So I hope they do wonder that."
29mEthan Sherwood Strauss