Oregon linebacker wants to see a resurgent defense
EUGENE Ñ You see Oregon's Kevin Mitchell, and you think that with the gnarly beard and bald head, the guy looks like a Russian professional wrestler. Or a lone rider, tattoos and all.
The intimidating appearance, paired with his solid credentials as one of the Pacific-10 Conference's best linebackers, would seem to make him the perfect captain. But, as he enters his senior season with the Ducks, he doesn't want much to do with a Joey Harrington-type leadership role.
'I'm not a hoo-rah guy,' Mitchell says, with 'hoo-rah' meaning vociferous, loquacious and demonstrative. 'I try to lead by example. I'm going to keep doing what I do.
'It's basically how you play. If you go out every day and play 100 percent, there shouldn't be any reason why people won't follow.
'If we have 11 guys doing the right thing, we should be OK.'
Mitchell, safety Keith Lewis and defensive tackle Igor Olshansky are the unquestioned leaders on defense. Lewis is a talker. Olshansky, by far the strongest man on the team, leads by sheer presence and intensity.
But Mitchell says none of the players lead the defense the way Peter Sirmon or Rashad Bauman did in the past.
'When things need to be said, certain people will speak up,' Mitchell says. 'That's the way spring practice went; going into next year, I think we'll be OK, leadershipwise.'
Mitchell has been the starting inside linebacker for an Oregon team that nearly stood on top of the college football world after the 2001 season and Fiesta Bowl, then sank to the depths in 2002 when Pac-10 offenses routinely stomped on the UO defense.
The omnipresent Mitchell, in the midst of Oregon's 2002 downfall, always said the Ducks just needed to buckle up Ñ try hard, do their assignments, make plays. But after UO's woeful showing in the Seattle Bowl, he basically shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Oh, well, there's always next year.'
As the classic do-your-job player, Mitchell doesn't look beyond the simple task of identifying the ballplayer and tackling him. In Oregon's system, the inside linebacker follows the tailback and brings him down.
So, it really frustrated Mitchell last year when fellow defenders couldn't do their job, when the defensive ends didn't put pressure on the passer, or a safety didn't make an aggressive tackle, or a cornerback didn't stick with a receiver.
After their 6-0 start, the Ducks lost their spirit, as well as the camaraderie and fellowship that had marked the Fiesta Bowl team. The Ducks gave up 28 points and 291 passing yards per game and 35 touchdowns through the air.
'It's not so much failing. It's more about, 'I'm not going to quit,' ' he says. 'If you get beat, you get beat. If you get beat because you quit or let up, there's a serious problem. You shouldn't be playing this game.
'Last year, I think everyone let up. In certain games at certain points, we let up and they scored, and everything went downhill. We've got to learn how to play ball again.'
The coaches and players seem a bit nervous about this season, which starts with training camp Aug. 6. They don't know whether the defense will return to form under coordinator Nick Aliotti and, more importantly, whether Steven Moore and Aaron Gipson can step up and be solid cornerbacks and whether Rodney Woods and other incoming corners will help out.
Mitchell says he has finished his undergraduate work, and he and longtime girlfriend Melanie Taylor were married last month. He's ready to wrap up a solid career, one that started when the Ducks stole the 5-11, 220-pounder from UCLA after his stellar prep career at powerhouse Mater Dei High School in Orange, Calif.
He'll probably play next to David Martin and Jerry Matson this season, and possibly junior college transfer Marcus Miller. He'll be the centerpiece in a group that needs to prove itself.
He won't make any promises about the defense.
'I go out and play and let everyone else talk,' he says.
Notes: Controversial defensive back Woods has moved to Eugene, but he hasn't enrolled in classes yet. Woods has been taking part in UO's informal workouts this summer, including weightlifting and conditioning drills. He has been taking a correspondence class, which he must pass before he can enroll at the university, UO spokesman Dave Williford says. Oregon coaches expect Woods to enroll in fall semester classes and play for the Ducks this year.