Mel Mitchelll Quick Study
Mitchell proves to be 'quick' study
He accelerates learning curve for starting role
Tuesday August 05, 2003
By Amalie Benjamin
Speed is the name of the game in the new-look Saints secondary.
And second-year safety Mel Mitchell knows he can fit right in.
One of the most impressive players in training camp so far, 24, Mitchell has solidified his starting spot, opposite veteran Tebucky Jones, who came from New England via trade.
"He's come a million miles since last year, coming in as a rookie, especially with him coming from a small school," secondary coach Joe Baker said of Mitchell, who attended Western Kentucky. "He was a good, solid athlete but very raw, had a lot to learn at the position. To be honest, I didn't know if he would ever get there. But he's shown a miraculous improvement, and I really think he's going to be a good player."
With the Saints letting starting safety Sammy Knight go in the offseason and demoting Jay Bellamy, Mitchell and Jones are expected to provide leadership on the defense.
But Mitchell isn't worried. He's trying to learn all he can about the safety position from veteran Bellamy, who now sits in the slot below him on the depth chart.
"(Bellamy) helped me on all situations, on the field, off the field, communicating, what to look for, how to get better reads," Mitchell said. "He could have been a distraction, but he's not."
Speed is the reason for Mitchell's quick ascension to the starting spot, but he's still trying to adjust to the speed of the game at the NFL level.
"Realizing that everyone's just as fast as you," Mitchell said. "You're not at Western Kentucky anymore, where two or three guys are standouts as far as fast-wise. In the NFL, everyone is liable to meet you at the ball."
Even with the quickness of the competition, Mitchell's speed has impressed the coaching staff, as well as his teammates, including Bellamy.
"We knew he was fast, but you never know if that combine time is going to translate into field speed," Baker said. "With him it does."
Bellamy said speed is definitely the goal for the entire defense. He understands the reasons for Mitchell's starting spot, but isn't overjoyed about having to give up his place on the field.
"Mel's a great athlete, great size, great speed, good awareness," Bellamy said. "It's real hard to take a back seat. At the same time, everyone has a common goal.
"That's a hell of a group out there (in the secondary)."
That Mitchell would make it to the NFL was never a given. After graduating from Rockledge High School in Florida, Mitchell attended Western Kentucky, a football powerhouse in Division I-AA.
But Mitchell made the most of his years as a Hilltopper, coming in as a cornerback and switching to safety before the start of his junior season. Two years later, the Saints drafted him in the fifth round.
"I've always been in this predicament: coming out of high school, not highly recruited; coming out of college, not highly recruited. It's just basically a pattern for me," Mitchell said. "I feed off that."
And as a new starter and second-year player Mitchell knows that NFL teams won't have a lot of respect for him on the field.
"I know a lot of teams are going to come at me this year, being the youngest defensive back out there, and I know I'm going to get tested early," he said.
Mitchell spent last season on the scout team, helping the first-team offense prepare for games, and played on special teams, where he had a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt.
Although disappointed that he wouldn't be starting, even in his rookie year, Mitchell took the opportunity to learn from the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, especially Knight, who now plays for the Dolphins.
"You want to compete for a starting job, but you have to learn the system," Mitchell said. "Learning the system behind Sammy Knight was helpful, but I knew my role last year. And my role was to be a contributor on the special teams. I promised myself that I was going to try to be the best contributor on special teams that I could. I think I did fairly well."
But it hasn't been all fun and games on the field for Mitchell.
The safety got in a fight with his counterpart, Jones, in the first week of training camp. Mitchell said the two had a disagreement on the field, something that comes with putting competitive athletes together. He said the two have worked out their differences.
Even though Mitchell has moved up the ranks quickly, he knows he can't become complacent without ever having started a single game.
"I'm not going to stop now," he said. "I'm not impressed with myself. A lot of work needs to be done until this team gets where it wants."
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