It’s a variation on the same story those familiar with Scott Mitchell and his humorous acclimation to Houston’s humidity, American football and Rice University share, but for those in the know, the tale never gets old.
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After battling a debilitating illness during the summer of 2007, Owls Jr. OL Jake Hicks assumed that he was the last – and most slender –of the six classmates who would later man the offensive line for the Owls. Hicks was 20 pounds lighter than the 260 Rice officials listed on his bio as part of their signing day news release, and at roughly 240 pounds Hicks was convinced he would be alone in having to gain weight quickly.
“I came in late to two-a-days, so I didn’t even know who he was,” Hicks said of Mitchell. “All of a sudden I saw him in meetings and I was like, ‘Who is that guy?’ And (teammates) would say, ‘Oh, that’s the Canadian.’ I thought I was going to be the only offensive lineman at 240 pounds, but they were like, ‘Oh no, the Canadian is 242.’ I was like, ‘What?’
“It was interesting. It was fun to watch him learn the offense because he had no idea what our terminology was – no clue. And so the first couple of days I was here which was after the first two weeks of two-a-days he was still asking all these questions. It was funny to watch him not understand anything we were saying.”
Now that six Canadians have played for Rice under Owls coach David Bailiff, it’s almost too easy to forget Mitchell as his nation’s trailblazer. When he arrived just prior to the ’07 training camp he was an anomaly of every sort, an underweight Northerner reared on a different brand of football and completely unprepared for Texas’ sweltering mid-August heat. He turned beet red during his first few practices, spoke with a thick, nearly indecipherable accent, and was the butt of good-natured ribbing. Little did anyone know of Mitchell’s immense natural talent.
After making 38 consecutive starts for the Owls, Mitchell (6-4, 295) will miss the final four games of his career with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot. While the other linemen who signed months before he arrived redshirted in 2007, Mitchell cracked the starting lineup as a true freshman. He played in eight games overall, starting five at left tackle while protecting the blind side of Jr. QB Chase Clement. Mitchell started all 13 games as the Owls capped a fabulous 10-win season in 2008 with a Texas Bowl triumph, and returned to start a dozen games last season, shifting to right tackle for four games as Rice battled a spate of injuries.
As a junior Mitchell became the undisputed leader of the linemen as he was joined in the starting lineup on a permanent basis by the same group of linemen who signed months before he did: Hicks, Davon Allen, Keshawn Carrington and Tyler Parish. Whereas Mitchell asked the questions during training camp in ’07, his classmates have been the ones with the inquiries in the years since, attempting to siphon his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Owls’ complex spread offense.
“Scott knew the offense as well as anybody,” Hicks said. “If we had any scheme type of issues, he was always big in the conversation as to exactly how we were going to play against a certain of look or defend against a certain blitz. The big thing now is we really have to come together as an offensive line. It’s five guys moving forward.”
Bailiff can handle his replacement of Mitchell a couple of ways. Junior Kody Emmert played left tackle when Mitchell shifted to the opposite side of the line last year and spelled Mitchell when he injured his foot at UCF. Hicks has played guard and tackle, and his versatility makes him a prime candidate to succeed Mitchell if Bailiff opts to play Parish at right tackle, Carrington at center, Allen at right guard and sophomore Eric Ball at left guard. Ball, who is returning from a knee injury, could start at center, which would then keep sophomore Clay Hebert at left guard.
What Bailiff can’t replace is Mitchell’s production. Mitchell has been an awards candidate for two seasons and, despite a series of shaky performances from the line this season, has remained a stalwart up front. When news of Mitchell’s injury spread, it was a shock to everyone. What wasn’t a surprise was the evenhanded manner in which Mitchell handled the abrupt and unfortunate conclusion to his collegiate career.
“He’s mature enough to know what he’s got to do now that his role on this football team has changed,” Bailiff said. “He’s able to look at the big picture, and he knows that he’s going to continue to train and continue to lead. He’s really handled it better than I anticipated.
“When (team doctors) told him (about the season-ending injury), he came right to the office and talked and he was disappointed. We just made a plan on how he’s got to finish, and he’s been out at practice every day trying to lead and help all he can.”
Because Mitchell advanced so quickly, sharing knowledge with others comes easy. And because he has excelled for so long, Mitchell has a legitimate shot at playing professionally in Canada should he recover from his injury. This obstacle is temporary, and considering everything Mitchell overcame in making a name for himself, his story isn’t finished.
Nevertheless, the conclusion to this chapter of his career is discouraging. Consecutive games played streaks are in many ways illusions because they suggest that the players who accomplished the feat enjoyed relatively good health. Fact is Mitchell proved tougher than anyone could have expected of that skinny Canadian with no experience in weight training but extraordinarily light feet. Mitchell played through injuries and he played through pain, and he did it all while transitioning to a new nation and experiences so very unique that jokes don’t suffice.
“He’s been a tough guy, so we didn’t think anything of it really when he came out of the game,” Hicks said. “He was still walking around and coaching guys up, so we figured he’d just be out for that last quarter, not practice during the bye week, and be ready (to play Tulsa on Saturday).
“The one position we haven’t had to worry about is left tackle. Everything else there has been competition, battles, replacements, all kinds of stuff. But at left tackle, we knew who was going to play there.”