IOWA CITY, Iowa – Presented with a role, Derrick Mitchell Jr. threw himself into character. His performance earned him the part.
Iowa was preparing for Wisconsin last November and the coaches needed someone to play Badgers all-American running back Melvin Gordon on scout team. They turned to Mitchell Jr., who had spent his first two seasons with the Hawkeyes at receiver.
"I put a Heisman (Trophy) sticker on my helmet. I did everything. I wore the white tape, the white gloves just like him. I was pretty much trying to give them the entire look," the 6-foot-1, 212-pound sophomore said during the team’s media day Saturday.
What most impressed the coaches about Mitchell Jr. was the effectiveness with which he ran against the defense. It led them to switch him to the backfield from wideout for the spring.
"After I imitated Melvin Gordon, from there it was just like, we need to see what we can do with this kid. We need to put him in a better position to help us make plays on Saturdays," he said. "I guess it was just the play-making ability they saw and that’s what led to the switch."
Mitchell Jr. welcomed the move after being buried down the receiver depth chart. He mostly was relegated to special teams duty last fall and did not record a statistic.
Things have unfolded better at running back for the St. Louis Vashon High product. A strong spring put him solidly in the mix for carries this fall.
"He’s getting better every day. Every day he does something where you say, hey, this kid’s a real running back," position coach Chris White said. "He’s a very natural athlete. He sees things. He’s got a burst. He’s stronger than you would think and he’s tougher than you would think."
Mitchell Jr. said he played running back throughout his youth. He ended up as a dual-threat quarterback in high school. Iowa then moved him to receiver.
"We ran a lot of zone read. We were a spread team," he said.
LeShun Daniels and Jordan Canzeri sit one and two, respectively, on the latest depth chart. Mitchell Jr. and Akrum Wadley are battling to crack the rotation.
"We have two young kids that are talented that are moving up every day but they have to be more consistent," White said. "Hopefully the lightbulb will come on and they will be consistent every day that we have the trust to put them in."
Mitchell Jr. was determined to give the defense his best shot while playing Gordon. It was his first time at running back in years but that rustiness didn’t determine the effort he put forth.
"Me, as a competitor, because I wasn’t playing as much (at receiver), my game was during the week. I don’t like losing so I take pride in winning. I told myself that I had to do my best to prepare the defense for winning on Saturday so I took on the Melvin Gordon role," he said.
Mitchell Jr. rushed for 712 yards as a senior in high school. That followed a junior year that saw him pick up 518 on the ground.
Mitchell Jr. said the playbook has not been his toughest adjustment in the position switch.
"It’s my pad level. I’m a tall guy and moving from receiver I’m used to running high. I’ve got to work on being low all the time and squeezing in between those little holes," he said.
Mitchell Jr. grew up with discipline. His father, Derrick Mitchell Sr., served as Derrick’s high school principle.
Mitchell Jr. earned a spot on the honor roll all for years as a prep. He knew with a father in a high position he needed to keep himself in line.
"I was never the type of kid that caused trouble so it was pretty much cool. I’d want to leave school early sometimes and I’d be looking around. I’d tell him I didn’t have class so could I leave school. He’d tell me to go," Mitchell Jr. said.
With a father who’s a principle and Derrick Jr. leading his team as a high school quarterback, he feels comfortable sharing his feelings with the other running backs.
"I joke around but at the same time I’m serious. I tell the other three guys that on Saturdays (the opponent has) to deal with all four of us so we have to bring it every day. Everybody has to do it, all four of us," Mitchell Jr. said.
The opportunity in front of Mitchell Jr. has him motivated to perform.
"I’m excited because now I can see my college career really starting and really about to take off because I can see my role increasing on this team and I can really help this team win on Saturdays," he said.