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'Give me the green light:' Why ECU's Keaton Mitchell believes he's the next Chris Johnson
NFL teams know they can find starters late in the draft. Is this the hidden gem in 2023? We catch up with East Carolina's flash of lightning.
He’s always been the smallest player on the field. None of this is new. There’s no substantive reason to doubt Keaton Mitchell other than the reality that the East Carolina running back stands 5 foot 8, 179 pounds.
His 7.2 yards per carry ranked second in the country. His time of 4.37 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was third.
All he’s known is domination at his position. Back to the four straight state championships he won in high school, a surreal 54-2 run.
Hence, the edge to his voice. Mitchell is now one week away from joining an NFL team and getting a chance to stick it to everyone.
“Nobody really believes in what I can do until I do it,” Mitchell says. “It’s always been a ‘prove ‘em wrong’ mentality. Now that I have the platform to show everybody, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Being able to prove people wrong. I’m doing this for me because I deserve to give it to myself.”
With that, Mitchell accidentally ends our phone conversation. Hits the wrong button.
Only later does he realize it was the Atlanta Falcons he was trying to send to voicemail. He did a local workout with the club, and they’re interested. So are the Buffalo Bills. The day prior, he enjoyed a conversation with running backs coach, Kelly Skipper. The San Francisco 49ers texted him. Truth is, someone will believe now. The NFL will supply Mitchell the platform he desires because the death of the modern-day running back is vastly overblown. For starters, truly special backs — like Texas’ Bijan Robinson — still warrant Top 10 consideration. Whether backs deserve to break the bank on Contract No. 2 is, uh, another matter. But five years of a running back in the prime of his football life, age 21 to 26, is the best bang for buck any team can get in this economy.
Further, last year’s proof that teams can mine for starters on Day 3. Houston’s Dameon Pierce (107th overall), Atlanta’s Tyler Allgeier (151st) and Kansas City’s Isiah Pacheco (251st) each eclipsed 1,000 total yards. All three possess variations of a tomorrow-is-not-promised rushing style. Keaton Mitchell speaks with a certainty that he’s next in line. And he’s more apt to toast the other 11 defenders on the field.
The NFL Draft is less than one week away. Go Long has you covered with Bob McGinn’s 39th Annual Draft Series. Part 1 (WR/TE), Part 2 (O-Line) and Part 3 (QB) are all live.
What should we expect? There’s zero hesitation. Mitchell points to the most famous running back his school has ever produced. (And also, for good measure, a Hall of Famer.)
“Chris Johnson,” he says. “Chris Johnson for sure. … I like LaDainian Tomlinson. LT is smooth with it. All of us, that first person you see, he’s not tackling us. That’s our mentality.”
After a game vs. Central Florida his sophomore year, Mitchell’s coach told him Johnson was outside and wanted to chop it up. “What!?” the kid said, stunned. The two chatted at length and then kept up a close relationship for two years. Usually, the two message each other on Instagram with Mitchell picking Johnson’s brain on his “mindset” watching film. He wants to know exactly what the former Tennessee Titans star looked for against certain fronts. Johnson’s go-to advice? Keep your speed. That’s your most deadly weapon.
He’d know. Johnson is one of eight players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. That ‘09 season, he also caught 50 balls for 503 yards with 16 total touchdowns. His slithery, explosive style took the league by storm.
Mitchell embraces the comparison and says it’s perfectly fine for everyone to expect similar highlights.
“I’m the next me. I’m that,” he says, with heavy emphasis. “They can compare me to him — speed or whatever. We symbolize each other. Go ahead. Throw that in there.”
Many skills can be taught at running back, but not…
“Speed,” he cuts in. “When you get the hole — when you see the end zone — it’s over with.”
DNA is a factor. His father was an unsung hero on the historic 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense. Anthony Mitchell made that team in ‘99 as an undrafted rookie out of Tuskegee. He’s the one who scooped up a blocked field goal and returned it 90 yards to the house in the fourth quarter of Baltimore’s AFC divisional playoff win over the Titans. Dad lasted eight seasons in the pros. Even Mitchell’s mother, Kandice, played football as a linebacker for the Atlanta Phoenix of the Women’s National Football Conference. Before this, she earned a track scholarship to Texas.
His brother, Kobi, played defensive back and ran track for Tuskegee from 2019 to 2021.
Keaton’s been a running back as long as he can remember, back to age 6.
Right in the heart of big-time high school football — the ultra-competitive Atlanta, Ga., area — Mitchell won a state championship in each of his four varsity seasons at Eagles Landing Christian Academy. Set a slew of records. Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn all swooped through. All talked to his coach. All saw that Mitchell ran for 2,509 yards (11.8 per carry) as a junior and 1,838 yards (9.6 per carry) as a senior with a ridiculous 88 total touchdowns those two seasons and… meh. One by one, they insisted Mitchell was too small for their taste. So, he committed to a school that did show a lot of love: ECU. Chatted nearly every day for one stretch.
Nature helped. But nurture was a greater factor. His home-run ability was developed more than anything. He points to playing soccer at a young age. (“I get a lot of agility and moves and footwork from playing soccer.”) He cites rec football at age 10, 11 and 12. One of his teammates was potential No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson, the edge rusher out of Alabama. Those rec ball days were ruthlessly competitive and laid a strong foundation. Anderson was a freak then. (“Oh my God!” Mitchell recalls. “The mentality he has now? When he makes a play and hits himself in the head, he’s been crazy. He’s been a freak.”) Mitchell also played against Brian Branch, who’d go on to also play for Alabama and draw Minkah Fitzpatrick comparisons.
Track is what took his game to a new level.
One of the NFL’s best running backs, Jonathan Taylor, described the same dynamic. He’d even study the mechanics of world-class sprinters Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin to elevate his speed. Mitchell sharpened his own stride, placed in the top 5 of his state meet and really, really wanted to sprint in college. (His football coaches wouldn’t allow it.) Forty times can be deceiving. Chris Johnson, who famously finished in 4.24 seconds, is actually the rare prospect who applied track speed to the field. Mitchell’s confident his 4.3 wheels apply.
As he explains, some players have “track speed” and some have “football speed.” He’s always had both because — back in high school — he’d train for both sports simultaneously.
Sprinting away from people became natural by the time he started in his high school backfield.
“Once you break it,” Mitchell says, “you’re using your track speed and opening up.
“I break tackles and make moves and leave everybody — they can’t catch me. I’ve always had home-run plays. That’s natural. That’s what I do. You’ll never see me break tackles and go out of bounds or get caught for a 15-yard gain. If I’m past the linebacker, it’s over with. That’s natural.”
At ECU, he ran wild. In 2021, he ran for 1,132 yards with nine touchdowns. In 2022, he ran for 1,452 yards with 14 scores.
Mitchell led the FBS with 54 runs of 10-plus yards, per PFF.
When the ball is in hands, everything slows down to a crawl in his mind. Both his brother and sister are now artists. His sister loves photographing and drawing pictures of scenes in nature while Mitchell turns the field into his personal own canvas. Everything slows down in his head. He doesn’t even hear the sound of the crowd. (“I’m locked in,” he adds. “So locked in.”) He takes just as much pride in his vision and agility as his speed but these are the two skills that open the floodgates to that speed. Allow him to even get to that second level of the defense and… see ya.
Mitchell was just watching a few college runs with his father. Particularly one run in a 47-45 quadruple-overtime win over Memphis.
He treasures the picture of one cut on a touchdown.
“I was slanted,” he says. “I was low to the ground. It was crazy. It’s my vision and my instincts. There’s only so much you can teach. Either you have it or you don’t. When I make those cuts, it’s instant.”
He laughs in a high pitch, giddy thinking back to this one.
“I’m going to send you a picture right now.”
Mitchell points to the 124-yard game his freshman year against the Cincinnati team that won 22 of 24 games as the tipping point. (“I was spazzin,’” he adds. “That’s when it really clicked.”) No wonder he gets irritated by anyone knocking him for his size — “junk,” he calls it.
Says Mitchell: “I don’t know what they’re looking at. The film’s right here. The stats are right here. If I was at their school and I had the line they’ve got and I had the holes they were given, there’s no telling what I would’ve done at the next level. To me, the only thing that’s different are the fronts. The O-Line and D-Line. Everything else is really the same. When I get drafted—wherever I go—just know that it’s going to be an explosive offense.”
Pacheco was a revelation in KC.
Two years after selecting LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire 32nd overall, head coach Andy Reid had no problem pivoting to that 251st overall pick in 2022. Pacheco had a string of violently clutch plays through the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run. The financial market is not kind but, on Sundays? The running back remains valuable. Contenders are always open to letting the best man win at running back, too.
Mitchell does not see himself as a niche scat back. He wants it all.
“I’m coming in with the mentality that I’m going to be that guy,” Mitchell says. “I’m not looking to be that second-string back. I’m coming in to start. I can do a lot of things. I can break big plays. I can catch the football. You can put me in the slot. Kick return. Punt return. I’m just trying to show my talent — show what I can do — my rookie year. Let them know size doesn’t matter. Just give me the green light.”
Like most 21-year-olds, he enjoys playing video games.
Unlike his peers, he spends free time fixing basements with Dad. He loves all handy work. There’s a tool for any job nowadays. But the hardest part, by far, is taking measurements. Dad studied architecture in college and his brother’s art background helps, but it’s tedious. And pressure-packed. “If you mess up one measurement,” Mitchell notes, “it can mess up your whole basement.” He’s positive this experience subconsciously feeds his run style. In the hole, reading the defense, he’s innately precise with all of those cuts.
His favorite pastime, however, is simply watching his own film. His girlfriend thinks it’s weird. He tries to explain to her that he must see what he’s doing each run. How a defense is two-gapping on the line. Where defensive linemen are slating. How he’s “flowing” with the defense before making that right cut at the right time. Re-watching full games this spring, he found the 2-yard runs that should’ve gone for 10.
Two years ago, wide receiver Marquez Stevenson had similarly friendly conversations with the Bills leading up to the draft and they took him in the sixth round. Mitchell didn’t talk football with Skipper as much as life.
Love from Atlanta, Buffalo, San Francisco and others could mean something. Could not. It’s a funky time of year.
If Keaton Mitchell needs to wait a while to hear his name called, that’s fine.
At his position — with his skill-set? — it honestly won’t matter.
“Everybody’s always going to doubt me because of my size,” Mitchell says. “The only thing I can do is continue to prove them wrong, like I’ve been doing. Letting them know that size doesn’t matter. I can play with anybody at the next level. The only way to find out is if I get drafted, get a chance, so I’m just waiting on that moment.”