A few weeks ago, cornerback Josh Mitchell found himself in a nightmare matchup several times against UCLA.
Mitchell, who is generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds, was lined up against Bruins tight end Joseph Fauria, who stands eight inches taller and outweighs him by 100 pounds. Even for a scrappy player like Mitchell who doesn't like to acknowledge his height disadvantage, the size difference seemed too great for UCLA to ignore.
But each time, Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley dropped back and selected another target, much to Mitchell's relief.
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"They actually didn't throw him the ball, so I got lucky," Mitchell said with a laugh. "I don't think they noticed the matchup. I think I just lucked out."
The Bruins certainly noticed Mitchell early on in the game. Hundley threw at the sophomore several times early on, once drawing a defensive pass interference penalty.
But Mitchell didn't back down, and after a few incompletions UCLA stopped targeting the cornerback. The extra attention early on didn't both Mitchell - he's used to having quarterbacks' eyes light up when they see his stature.
"I wouldn't say I feel like they target me, but I definitely feel like I'm on their game plan sheet," Mitchell said. "Let's throw the ball at him. He's not a big guy, so why not try it out?"
Mitchell has started every game this season, but his position is far from secure. He has to continue to try and hold off Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Mohammed Seisay, both of whom rotate for playing time with Mitchell opposite Andrew Green.
The competition could become even more crowded in coming weeks as Nebraska moves into Big Ten play and begins playing more base defense and less nickel and dime. Playing base would usually mean taking Ciante Evans, who has arguably been NU's best cornerback so far, off the field, so the Huskers are experimenting with Evans playing on the outside as well as the nickel.
None of this frightens Mitchell. He has fought people's expectations his entire life, people who say he's too small to keep pace with receivers. He said he tries to be physical with receivers early on in games to let them know he's going to make them work for whatever they get.
"I feel like I play with a big-man mentality," Mitchell said. "I don't let guys push me around. Earlier in the game, I just try to let them know I'll be here all game. I get my hands on them and let them know it's not going to be easy for them. I just try to use what I have. I've been playing corner my whole life, so it's easy for me. I've always played kids bigger and older than me, so for me, I don't see the difference. I just try to use my speed to my advantage."
It's that speed that has allowed Mitchell to become a part of the rotation at cornerback. After last season, Mitchell was buried on the depth chart and appeared on his way out of the program. But he fought back and earned the respect of new secondary coach Terry Joseph, who admires Mitchell's speed and says it allows him to make up for his lack of size.
"I think what happens is he gets out there and his 155 pounds goes out the window for the most part because he competes at a high level and he plays fast," Joseph said. "His footwork has gotten so much better since the spring. He's really bought into what we're trying to do on defense and that afforded him the opportunity to get out there and start and play pretty solid for us."
Neither size nor speed played a key role in what was likely the highlight of Mitchell's young college career Saturday. With Idaho State driving in NU territory, Bengals quarterback Kevin Yost floated a pass directly to Mitchell, who picked the pass off for his first career interception.
"The guys have been getting on me all week, saying it was easy and it was a honey-bun play," Mitchell said. "A pick is a pick, so I'll take it."