Tom Murphy is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Razorbacks' Mitchell singing new tune at RB
Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey and running back Damon Mitchell (7) run drills during practice Saturday, April 2, 2016, at Razorback Stadium.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Damon Mitchell wasn't thrilled about fighting for reps on the fringe of Arkansas' suddenly deep wide receiver group this spring.
That led the 6-2, 216-pound junior, called "Duwop" by his coaches and teammates, to Coach Bret Bielema's office door this winter.
Damon Mitchell glance
Position Running back
Height/Weight 6-2, 216 pounds
AGE 21 (born July 9, 1994)
High School Egg Harbor City (N.J.) Cedar Creek
Noteworthy Has been a quarterback, receiver and running back during a redshirt year and two other seasons at Arkansas. … Caught six passes for 84 yards last year, including a 49-yard TD pass from Brandon Allen against Tennessee-Martin. … Has 10 career carries for 87 yards. … Rated the No. 11 dual threat quarterback in the country by 247Sports.com in 2013.
"I went to Coach B before spring practice started, and I asked him, 'Can I move to running back or safety?' " he said. "I wanted to go out and try to compete for a job."
Bielema's response: Running back was the most likely place for Mitchell to make an impact this spring. The position was not foreign to Mitchell by any means.
With a hefty amount of uncertainty at running back for 2016 -- whether 1,500-yard rusher Alex Collins or sixth-year senior Kody Walker would return, or the recovery prognosis from neck surgery for Rawleigh Williams III -- Mitchell took snaps at the position during practices for the Liberty Bowl late last year.
In addition, he's been there before.
"Previous to coming to college, I had been [a] running back all my life until I switched over to quarterback my sophomore year in high school," said Mitchell, a 2013 signee from Egg Harbor City, N.J. "I'm not foreign to running between the tackles, but it's a little different."
Mitchell made his presence felt Saturday in his first full-contact scrimmage as a full-time running back. He rushed for 51 yards on 9 carries, including a team-high 32-yard dash around left end that ended with a high-impact collision with safety Santos Ramirez.
Taller and more slender than other top tailbacks Walker, Williams, Denzel Evans and Juan Day, Mitchell casts a different profile with the ball under his arm, particularly in his single-digit No. 7 jersey.
"You know what, he has something a little bit different than the other guys," said Reggie Mitchell, the Razorbacks' first-year running backs coach. "I was really pleased with him.
"He made some really good plays, and then there were some things that once he gets more experienced, he's going to get better at. He's got a burst that's unbelievable. He has great acceleration. He's a big guy, and he's trying to run physical, so I've been really impressed with him."
Mitchell also said the newest member of the running back group has good vision and is not afraid to run between the tackles.
Offensive coordinator Dan Enos said Mitchell "ran his fanny off" in last week's 61-play scrimmage.
"I think it's a natural spot for him," Enos said. "I think he's going to help us. He's got great speed and athleticism and he's explosive."
Bielema said he's been most impressed by how strong of a runner Mitchell has been.
"For a guy recruited as a quarterback, he's a very physical runner when he wants to be," Bielema said. "He's developing a running style now. He's never really played that true I-back, so he's got to get some of those reads down.
"Right after that big run, he tried to cut all the way across the field. Just go straight ahead."
Mitchell described his running style as a mixed breed.
"Fast and having balance, but once I learn everything like the back of my hand it's going to be pretty fun," he said.
Mitchell helped run the scout team as a quarterback in 2013 before switching to receiver. He had six receptions for 84 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown against Tennessee-Martin, last year. In two seasons, he's averaging 8.7 yards per touch on 10 carries and 6 catches.
The Arkansas tailback spot will feature a wide variety of styles, with big backs Walker and signee Devwah Whaley contrasting with Williams, Mitchell and the others.
"I feel why not now for me?" Mitchell said. "I've got two years of eligibility left ... so it's make it or break it for me right now."
Sports on 04/07/2016
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