In the spring, Malcolm Mitchell was a wide receiver taking a crack at cornerback – strictly an "experiment," in the words of his head coach, preferably a temporary one. You know, in case of emergency, break glass, etc. Now, though, on the eve of preseason camp, it's beginning to sound like the transformation of Georgia's most dangerous offensive weapon into a full-time cover man who only occasionally touches the ball is nearly complete.
Talking to reporters Thursday at SEC Media Days, UGA coach Mark Richt said he expects Mitchell to be about "50-50" on offense and defense over the course of the season, likely focusing on the latter early on to ease the suspension-ravaged depth chart at cornerback and gradually filtering back into the wide receiver rotation as the year goes on. Both of last year's starting corners, seniors Branden Smith and Sanders Commings, are already on thin ice: Smith on the heels of a misdemeanor marijuana arrest in March, Commings as a result of domestic violence arrest in January that will keep him out of the Bulldogs' first two games, against Buffalo and Missouri.
Combined with even lengthier suspensions for safety Baccari Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree, the Bulldogs will start the season with 79 career starts sitting on the bench. "By time [the] season's over, we will have seen a lot of Malcolm playing offense," Richt promised. "Early on, I don't know how much."
Outside of Georgia, Mitchell tended to be overshadowed last year by his more touted classmate, tailback Isaiah Crowell, but that had more to do with hype than production: Mitchell finished second on the team in both yards (665) and receptions (45) despite missing three games at midseason, and – dropped touchdown pass in the SEC Championship Game notwithstanding – was generally one of the most reliable receivers in the conference. Minus Mitchell, Crowell (booted from the team earlier this month for a pair of felony weapons charges), backup tailback Carlton Thomas (a spring transfer) and NFL-bound tight end Orson Charles, the Bulldogs are suddenly stuck with replacing four of the five most productive players on last year's offense in terms of yards from scrimmage, none of whom completed their eligibility.
The glaring question, of course, is just how much of Mitchell's production can be subtracted from that equation. Some of it will be picked up by the other receivers, most notably senior Tavarres King, who appear much more likely as a group to withstand a hit to their ranks than the secondary does; sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley and senior Marlon Brown combined for 63 catches last year. But as for Mitchell himself, he doesn't have to look to the glory days of Frank Sinkwich for a role model: In 1998, cornerback/wide receiver Champ Bailey pulled off the "iron man" role with a flourish, simultaneously earning All-America honors on defense while also leading the team in yards from scrimmage. (On a related note, Champ Bailey probably should have done a little better in that year's Heisman voting.) And just last year, since-departed cornerback Brandon Boykin managed to turn in a handful of big plays on offense in addition to his full-time role in the secondary.
But Bailey is a soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer and certifiable freak of nature, even by the standards of high-level athletes, and Boykin only touched the ball about once per game. (Ditto Charles Woodson, who only had 14 touches on offense in his Heisman-winning season in 1997.) If Malcolm Mitchell is the second coming of Champ Bailey, give thanks to the ghost of Larry Munson and bring him gold and spices. Realistically, Mitchell is this year's version of Boykin: Specializing where he's needed most and then helping out occasionally on the other side, when he can. If the priority is defense – which it clearly is, for the moment – the offense should probably begin bracing