When Arkansas-Pine Bluff senior Mareo Howard went down on the opening kickoff return against Langston (Okla.) on Saturday, special teams coach Phil Cole didn’t immediately think about the loss that hit his unit.
“When he went down, the first thing I thought was, we lost our starting receiver. That’s the first thing I thought,” Cole said. “Returners, you can replace.”
Next on the depth chart was Andre Mitchell, a true freshman. His first return was good for 41 yards — from the goal line.
“I was just like, ‘Be calm, don’t mess up, do what you’re told to do, like practice,’” Mitchell said. “When I looked up, there was just a hole, a lot of green right there.”
With that 17-14 victory in the books, Mitchell is no longer green to the college game. He got quite a workout against Langston, returning four punts for 56 yards and two kickoffs for 23 yards.
Not bad work for a 5-foot-8, 160-pounder from California who was offered a scholarship to UAPB in July.
“My coaches said I was too small to play,” Mitchell said. “The coaches here said it doesn’t matter if you’re too small to play here. They’ll put you out there.”
Mitchell was a three-year starter at Citrus Hill High School in Perris, which is 72 miles southeast of Los Angeles. He was recruited by then-UAPB secondary coach Marty Biagi to play cornerback and return kicks and punts. Shortly after Mitchell signed, Biagi left UAPB for a position on the Southern staff.
But Mitchell’s commitment never wavered. Henry Miller was hired as the secondary coach just in time for preseason camp, and Mitchell was assured by one of his mentors that he would be taken care of as a cornerback.
“He looked him up and heard of coach Miller and said, yeah, you’re going to be in good hands,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell currently is second on the depth chart to Jamel Maxwell at left cornerback. In the return game, the freshman has found his way to the top spot, and it looks like he’ll be there for a while. UAPB coach Monte Coleman said Wednesday that Howard is likely out for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his knee.
It was no question Mitchell would take over for Howard, but Cole didn’t imagine it would be so soon.
“Mareo was going to play a lot on offense, so the first couple (of returns) would have been Mareo, and then rotate between Mareo and Andre, depending on the situation,” Cole said. “Him being a true freshman, I was just going to wean him in there, but after Mareo went down, we threw him out in the fire and he proved he has some ice in his veins.
“He stepped up to the plate, the lights came on, and he stepped up. For a young kid, that takes a lot.”