Shirdonya Mitchell arrived at Missouri with the same dream as most college football players: Make it to the next level, the National Football League.
After two seasons and only eight catches at wide receiver, though, Mitchell decided if he was going to play in the NFL, he needed to make a switch. So, he went to the coaches and offered to play defensive back.
“I have dreams like everybody else has dreams and I felt like in order to reach my dreams I needed to switch over,” Mitchell said. “I looked at myself and well, I see people at the next level, the receivers are all big … I’m not over 6-5, so I felt like I would try defensive back and see if it works out.”
While Mitchell, a 6-foot, 195-pound senior, saw a better future playing defense, the Missouri coaches saw an athlete who could become a high-level defensive back.
“We certainly saw the talent there,” said Matt Eberflus, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. “In terms of the quickness and speed and the ability to run with people.”
Coach Gary Pinkel said he encouraged the move.
“Well, just at receiver, you saw this great athlete, but just the consistency of catching wasn’t there,” Pinkel said. “When I brought him in my office I just saw this guy has remarkable explosiveness and great quickness, but it’s very difficult to be a high-level receiver if you can’t catch consistently.”
Fortunately for Mitchell’s dreams and the Tigers’ defense, the move to the other side of the ball has worked out. Last season, Mitchell made one start and intercepted one pass.
Pinkel said the experience he gained last season and the workouts during the spring have Mitchell playing with confidence.
“I think he’s obviously much more comfortable now,” Pinkel said. “And I think corner is a position where you have to have a lot of confidence because you are put out on an island against wide receivers who are some of the best in the country.”
Confidence has made Mitchell an impact player. Mitchell has started every game this season at cornerback and has more tackles this season (20) than all of last season (17). Mitchell is also tied for the lead for interceptions in the Big 12 Conference with four.
The plays he has made on the defense are leading to jokes from his teammates about the lack of plays he made on offense.
“Oh yeah, he makes more catches on defense now,” wide receiver Sean Coffey said. “But we always give him a lot about that, but he’s been making big plays this season.”
Mitchell said he doesn’t mind the ribbing because he knows his teammates respect his ability.
“Yeah, you know they’re going to make jokes, but I’m not really worried about that, because I know it’s all love,” Mitchell said. “But, I just go out there and try to make plays, just like everybody else on defense.”
Nobody has made a bigger play this season for the Tigers’ defense, the statistical leader in the Big 12 Conference, than Mitchell. His interception against Colorado came with Missouri clinging to a 17-9 lead. Mitchell wrestled the ball away from Buffaloes’ receiver Evan Judge in the south end zone to protect the lead and the Tigers’ held on for the win.
Mitchell has a simple philosophy on making plays.
“I think the defense looks at it like if we have the opportunity to make a play, we should make it, just like (Marcus) King tipped that ball and I was able to get that interception (against Baylor),” Mitchell said. “Last week, that fade route (against Colorado), I had the opportunity to make the play, and I made the play.”
Pinkel said he wishes Mitchell would have switched to defense sooner.
“The day we got here, if we could’ve, that probably would have been a good move,” he said. “If I could have figured that out a few years earlier, because I think he has really, really adjusted well and he’s where he should be.
“But, it’s also a position that just takes time and experience to play. I think he’s been very natural at it and it’s been so easy for him from the standpoint of learning how to play the position.”
Still, Eberflus said Mitchell needs to continue to put in hard work to reach his dream.
“He’s just got to keep improving and doing a good job of what he’s doing,” Eberflus said. “Learning the position, learning the fundamentals, doing the film study and all that stuff. If he keeps doing that he should progress well.”
Mitchell’s studying has included the NFL’s corners.
“I did my little scouting report after the season,” Mitchell said. “I was checking out their height and weight and everything and I’m right in the mix. So I looked at that and I was like, ‘Maybe I have a chance at the next level.’”
The only thing Mitchell misses about his days on offense is the attention big plays draw.
“I was thinking I was always making the touchdown and I was always in the spotlight in high school and I’m going to defense,” he said. “And defense don’t really get a lot of spotlight unless you’re just All-American and you’re just constantly making plays and everybody knows you.
“But you know, that’s all right, as long as I’m making plays and we’re winning, I’m fine.”