It hasn’t taken long for Georgia Tech linebacker Brant Mitchell to figure out that P.J. Davis will be a difficult player for the Yellow Jackets to replace. And it now falls upon Mitchell’s shoulders to be a part of the solution.
“Everybody that saw P.J. knew that he was going to fly around and hit somebody,” Mitchell said. “That’s definitely something we miss, just his energy.”
Davis led Tech in tackles for two of his final three seasons and likely would have led the team a third time last season if not for a hamstring injury that kept him out of two games. Mitchell started all 13 games last season as a sophomore and ranked fourth on the team in tackles, with 71.
“I’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Mitchell said.
This spring, Tech coaches are counting on Mitchell to become a more productive player and provide leadership as a junior. Part of his challenge for the spring is becoming more adept at shedding blockers and making more impact plays.
“For me, I’ve got to be more violent with my hands,” Mitchell said. “That’s definitely something I noticed (watching last year’s game video) — I’ve got to get off blocks better, and as a linebacker, that’s pretty important.”
In his first season as a full-time starter, Mitchell had three tackles for loss, no sacks, no forced fumbles and two quarterback hurries. The 23 ACC linebackers who had more tackles than him last season averaged 8.6 tackles for loss.
It was part of a defensive-wide shortcoming. Tech ranked 120th in tackles for loss per game (4.4 per game), a weakness that contributed to Tech finishing 126th in defensive third-down conversion rate (49.2 percent).
Mitchell made his tackles too frequently well past the line of scrimmage. In the final four games of the season, Mitchell either had a solo tackle or an assist on 19 run plays. Of the 19, 11 of the plays went for four yards or more.
He can become a more impactful player by reading the opponent more quickly.
“To react quicker, to diagnose things quicker,” Roof said. “Just to rely on the reaction part of it as opposed to the thought part of it.”
Mitchell said that he believes he is playing faster this spring, which, come the season, should help him get into more backfields to make game-changing plays, both as a run stopper and on blitzes. It is the result of knowing his play responsibilities more thoroughly.
“If I know what to do, then I can play fast and physical and do my job,” he said. “That’s something that’s really important as a linebacker, as a middle linebacker especially. Your responsibility is everybody, so you’ve got to get everybody lined up, make sure you know the call, and once you do that, you can play as fast as you want to.”
Two plays from last year’s Virginia game demonstrate what he can do, but how far he has yet to go. On a first-and-10 in the second quarter, Virginia ran a handoff for tailback Taquan Mizzell. Mitchell charged through the gap between the center and left guard, glanced off the blocking back and brought down Mizzell for no gain.
On another first-and-10 later in the quarter, another Mizzell run play, center Jackson Matteo locked onto Mitchell and steered him away from the play, an 8-yard gain.
“Brant has improved,” Roof said. “He has gotten better. He’s gotten better with his reads. He’s gotten better with the quickness of his fits and his play entries. He’s become a better blitzer, but still got work to do. But he’s improved in those areas.”
A linebacker doesn’t make plays on his own; he needs defensive tackles to hold the point to allow him to run unfettered to the ball, for instance. And Tech will be especially inexperienced at that position next season. But Mitchell acknowledged his need to keep improving.
“All around, I’ve got to get a lot better in all areas,” he said. “There’s never a place where you come to where you’re there. Especially me, I’m not there yet.”