Fresno State offensive line coordinator Cam Norcross has been slowly building an army of weapons on the offensive line. After being one of the five offensive linemen taken in this class, Aaron Mitchell knows that spots on the Bulldogs' line will come at a premium. Mitchell knows that if you want to find your way on to the field with this group, then you have to be prepared for anything.
One of the things Mitchell may need to prepare himself for is the possibility of playing center for the Bulldogs. After being asked to add snapping to his repertoire, Mitchell began practicing his snap and step all off-season. If there's a possibility of a position change for the former high school guard, he plans to be prepared for it in advance. A shrewd move for a young man, to be sure.
"Definitely just working hard to get up there and show my best to the coaches," Mitchell said. "Then I'll prove as a player through the spring and get bigger and stronger to prepare myself for what's to come next. For now I've just maintaining a great physical ability, working out, and getting good conditioning. Also, snapping the ball. I played guard through all of high school. I've played some center. The coaches wanted to make sure that I took some center and took some snaps, snapping and stepping. I've been working a lot on snapping, stepping, and footwork. Not just because it's what they want me to do, but because I need to know as soon as possible for what I'm going to do. That's my goal."
To aid his development as a center, Mitchell enlisted the help of a former player from the University of Oklahoma; his dad. Along with his dad, Mitchell has been using the fundamentals he's developed at a rugger to feel more comfortable with the football in his hands. Mitchell believes that developing into a center is really just a matter of time, it's not something he's terribly worried about.
"Handling the ball is something that comes a little naturally to me," Mitchell said. "I play Rugby, so I'm use to handling the ball in my hands. Snapping is one of those things that came kind of natural to me. My dad played football at the University of Oklahoma and he had some insight to snapping and stepping. Mostly anything on the offensive line is mostly footwork. I've been gifted with great footwork and anything that I've worked on to improve my footwork. Center's definitely a different mentality than any other offensive line position, but it's something that can be taught and something that I'm willing to learn."
The Bulldogs have a rich history of leaders on the offensive line and this is a fact that hasn't escaped Mitchell. Leadership is something Mitchell began fine-tuning back in high school and he plans to bring those skills with him to the Valley. While it was definitely awkward for Mitchell to be a leader in high school, he realizes that lineman have a different value as you move through the football ranks and it was important for him to have developed those leadership skills early.
"It's always important to improve and fine-tune your leadership skills," Mitchell said. "It really helped me my senior year with having a young quarterback and being the leader of the offense. Me and Chris Moliga, who's coming with us, we were definitely the leaders of the offense. It's a little bit different having an offensive lineman being the leader of an offense, but it really helped me fine-tune and get use to going outside my comfort zone and talking to a wide receiver about having to go block a kid down field or helping a quarterback out in making his reads. It just really fine-tuned all my leadership skills and it's definitely something I plan on working on throughout my college career. It all comes back down to it's all a mentality. If you think that you'll be able to do that, then you'll be able to do it. Your mind will set you free and let you do what you need to do to get it done. Of course, it comes down to knowing what type of drop the quarterback is going to have or whether to draw a play or anything, but that's all stuff that you learn along the way. Growing up with maturity, you kind of learn these things and practice, of course. It takes a bunch of practice."To understand the type of player Mitchell is, you needn't look any further than Coach Norcross. Mitchell, like many of the other offensive linemen, sees himself as an extension of Norcross. The reason Mitchell even chose Fresno State was because of the relationship he had with Norcross. It's a relationship that Mitchell believes will pay off in a big way. Mitchell also sounds like the latest Bulldog to understand, grasp, and preach Tim DeRuyter's message of love and trust.
"I think as a player, I'm kind of like how Coach Norcross was in college and high school," Mitchell said. "I've got to play with kind of a chip on my shoulder ‘cause I'm not the biggest guy. I'm not 6-foot-5. I'm not 315 pounds. I'm 6-foot-3. I'm 290. Offensive line is not just about size. It's about mentality. It's all about a mentality that you're going to go out there and beat the guy across from you every single play. You're going to be more nasty and more physical than the guy across from you every single down. My plan is to be the hammer, not the nail, to go out and look to hit people, not to just get hit. As a person, Coach Norcross came to our house and he sat down and had dinner. I think he stayed for two and a half hours. We just had good conversation. Honestly, he seemed like one of my brothers. He's my coach. I think he's a relatable guy. I'm more of a guy that likes a coach that's going to get on me when I'm acting up and praise me when I am doing it right and motivate me to get me to the highest level I can.
" One of the things that stuck with me was that he can teach me all the technique and could teach me all this, but I'm the one that's going to make myself an All-American or an All-Mountain West. He's going to teach me how to do it and I'm going to take myself there. I'm proud to say that me and Coach Norcross are going to go a long way. That's one of the reasons why I chose Fresno State is because he's such a welcoming man. He welcomed me into the family and into the team and he welcomed my family. I think that's of the biggest reasons why I'm really excited to go up to Fresno. He's going to be like another dad to me. He's going to be a mentor. He's going to be a coach. He's going to be leader. That's what I plan to follow."
Immediate playing time is rarely something that recruits turn down, but it's not something that Mitchell necessarily needs right now. Embracing a "team first" philosophy is something that comes natural to Mitchell and it also applies here. Mitchell is more concerned with being ready when his number is called than he is having his number be the first one called. Patience is a virtue that will help him understand, grasp, and breathe this offense.
" Honestly, it comes down to what the team needs," Mitchell said, "If the team needs me to hop in there and start taking an active role in playing on the field, than that's what I'm going to have to do. I'm going to have to adapt my game play, I'm going to have to learn fast, and I'm going to have to learn on the run, just like a lot of people do. If the team needs me to sit back, learn, get experience, take great practice reps, and help out our defense, then that's what I'm going to do. It's all a part of the college experience. It's all a part of being part of a team. Whatever the coaches decide for myself, whether it's to red shirt or to try to get a spot on the offensive line if the opportunity presents itself, I'm going to hop on it. I'm going to get on the train and we're going to get going. You know, with Derek Carr and Davante Adams, every team loses athletes. Not as special as those two, but every team loses them and there's always a spot to be filled. There's always talent coming up. It's just going to depend on how guys take advantage of the opportunities that are presented."
As Mitchell mentioned, Carr won't be the guy taking snaps this year. The honor will likely go to someone who can run as well as pass, something a little newer to Fresno State fans. Blocking for mobile quarterbacks is a different animal than blocking for guys who stand back in the pocket with their eyes down field. Asked if he a preference for blocking mobile quarterbacks versus pocket passers, Mitchell emphatically said that it didn't matter. As a matter of fact, Mitchell sees the different styles as a motivator in the offensive line competition.
"Blocking for a quarterback is blocking for a quarterback," Mitchell said. "He's my brother and I'm going to go out there and protect him. Whether I have to sit there for five to ten seconds so he can sit in the pocket so he can have a nice clean block and throw the ball or I have to get down field and protect him when he gets hit, it's all the same to me. He's a brother out there on the field against a bunch of warriors and I need to go out there protect him. I think it's good competition for having that may quarterbacks out there. Guys can get complacent ‘cause they think they won the job. I think it's good, good competition that there're four or five good quarterbacks out there competing for an opportunity."
Mitchell's humility and passion for the grind are what got him a Division-1 scholarship and they're likely to see him onto the field at some point, too. Regardless of how things turn out, it's clear that Norcross' recruitment on the offensive line will produce leader after leader on the offensive line. Having that type of mentality strewn about your offensive line is sure to help you win a few football games, no?Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more updates on the 2014 Fresno State season. Josh Webb is a Staff Writer for BulldogPlaybook. You can follow him on Twitter at @FightOnTwist.