Dec. 22, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Derek Mitchell hasn’t been a starter in one game in his five-year Marshall football career.
Yet, the former walk-on from Point Pleasant has started every game … and the 51st will be the Thundering Herd’s Military Bowl game on Friday against Maryland at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Confused? It’s understandable. Mitchell, a redshirt senior and backup strong side linebacker, is as much a survivor as a player in the Herd program. He made a specialty of playing special teams long before he was moved from safety to linebacker last spring.
Whether the Herd wins the bowl’s coin toss in Annapolis, Md., or not, and whether the Herd defers its coin toss option to the second half, Mitchell will be the field for the first play of the game … just as he has every previous game in his career.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Mitchell is a mainstay on the Herd’s kickoff and kick coverage teams, and also the punt and punt coverage teams. And if he isn’t on the PAT/field goal unit, he is the backup snapper should reliable Matt Cincotta not be available.
Last Sunday at the Herd team banquet -- when it was Mitchell’s turn among the seniors to speak -- he talked about how that day and a career-finishing Military Bowl might never have happened.
It was four years ago, just after coach Doc Holliday’s hiring by the Herd, and in a team meeting the players who had walked on under former coach Mark Snyder basically were told to hit the road by the new coach.
From that day, Mitchell and two Herd starters – defensive end Alex Bazzie and running back Essray Taliaferro – will take their final bows at the Military Bowl.
“I walked on when the former coach was here,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t the only one. Bazzie, Tally, too, and some other guys who aren’t here anymore,” Mitchell said after practice one day last week, recounting the history. “Bazzie and me, we even had orientation the same day, and redshirted that year (2009).
“And when Coach Holliday came, the walk-ons, well, he told us he didn’t want us to be a distraction for what they had to accomplish. It was me, Bazz and Tally, and not just us … we don’t really need you right now. Not those exact words, but that was it. If you don’t have great grades, we don’t really need you.”
Mitchell, Taliaferro and Bazzie decided they wanted to be part of the Herd … but Mitchell said none among them was certain they could sell Holliday on that.
“It was, ‘All right,’ when we heard that, but I was upset, Bazzie and Tally, too. The three of us talked a lot. ‘We can’t finish like that.’ So, we went to talk to Coach individually and as a group. And we basically said, ‘Coach, is there anything we can do to get back on the team … anything. We don’t care what it is, we want to play football.”
Mitchell was hoping his connections would help his cause. His father, Darrell Mitchell, had played tight end at West Virginia, where Holliday had been the elder Mitchell’s position coach years earlier.
The Herd rookie played that card, but he figured it didn’t matter.
“He (Holliday) wanted to see how much we wanted it,” said Mitchell, 22. “He said, OK, and laid out parameters. No mess-ups. You couldn’t miss any lifting, any meetings, had to go to class.
“You missed a class, you were gone … had to maintain a 3.0 (grade point average), had to be on time. And that’s what it took.”
Defensive end Jeremiah Taylor, who is returning for his final game after being sidelined with a fracture in his lower back for three months, joined the walk-on trip in the spring of 2010.
Mitchell, Bazzie and Taliaferro were satisfying Holliday off the field, but what did it take for them to feel they really were part of Holliday’s first Herd team?
“We had to go through spring ball,” Mitchell said. “Every day, we had what was then the ‘Herd Drill,’ different than it is now. It was basically one-on-one, who can hit the hardest, multiple times.
“I can remember I went every single day. Bazz went every single day. Tally went every single day. And it was a test to see how much we did really want it, whether we were going to stick it out or not.
“I’m glad I did.”
Mitchell earned a scholarship at the end of his redshirt freshman year, Holliday’s first season. He has played in a program in which special teams get daily practice reps and an emphasis from the head coach. Mitchell could be one of Holliday’s best salesmen on those units’ importance.
“Yes, I’ve been on the field for the first play of every game since I’ve been here,” he said. “I basically just said (at the banquet) that as a walk-on, if you’re not trying to get onto the field, well … that should be your goal, try to help the team any way you can.
“And not just the walk-ons. People who don’t play a lot on defense or offense, your goal should be to get on the field somehow to help those guys out. We have starters on offense and defense that play special teams (Bazzie and Taliaferro included) and sometimes our offense runs 80- or 90-plus plays every game, and if you can get out there, that gives a those guys break.
“Having guys who just play special teams, that’s their world, that can help this team a lot. That was my only goal way back, to get onto the field. And Tally started out that way; Bazzie, too, and JT (Taylor).
“We all started out that way, and it’s been my role and I’ve accepted it, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I’m glad to the point where I realize how bad I wanted this, how much work it actually took to get where I am today.”
So, Mitchell will play his last Marshall football game on Friday afternoon. He and Bazzie and Taliaferro have proven themselves to more than Holliday. They’ve proven a lot to themselves and their teammates, and they hope to players who will walk on to the Herd in future seasons.
“It’s my senior year, my last game and I think about that,” Mitchell said. “I’m excited, hopefully to go out with a win. I’m happy for all the seniors, hopefully all of us will have chance to go out with that W.
“And I’m happy for all of the team, really, because all those boys, they all work hard and deserve it. We’ve put in hard work in spring ball, the offseason and August camp and the entire season just to get to this game.
“We deserve it.”