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Colorado's Mitchell Might Be Out of Path of the Hurricanes

HOW THEY'RE DOING. One in a series

September 25, 1993|SCOTT MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The television cameras and set-up crews are streaming into Boulder, Colo., the guy from Sports Illustrated arrived at midweek, and dozens of other national college football writers are descending by the drove.

And as No. 13 Colorado prepares to play host to the No. 3 Miami Hurricanes today in one of the season's biggest games, Erik Mitchell is still listed third on the depth chart among Buffalo wide receivers.

He has yet to catch a pass this season and he has played in only two of Colorado's three games.

It is quite different from the way he envisioned this season.

But then, the fourth-year junior didn't figure Colorado Coach Bill McCartney would junk the three-receiver offense last spring in favor of a two-receiver set with a tight end, either.

"It was a little frustrating because I felt that when they changed the offense from three to two receivers, they weren't really using the talent we had at the position," said Mitchell, a Los Alamitos High graduate who started for Colorado at one time last season. "They talked to us. They said that this offense gives us the ability to run the football and pass."

When there are only two receiving spots available and Charles Johnson and Michael Westbrook are on your team, it follows that there will not be much playing time for anybody else.

Most people rate Colorado's receiving corps as the nation's finest--the Buffaloes have depth, speed and talent. Johnson and Westbrook are legitimate All-American candidates--The Sporting News picked Westbrook, a junior, as the best in the nation in a preseason poll.

Johnson and Westbrook each had more than 1,000 receiving yards last season, becoming only the fourth pair of wide receivers on the same team in NCAA history to accomplish the feat.

That leaves Colorado's talented reserves to fight for the scraps. Enter Mitchell, who started the first four games last season, played in all 11--plus the Fiesta Bowl--and caught 10 passes for 125 yards.

He has only played on special teams this year. He is on the kickoff and punt teams and is a backup on the kick- and punt-return teams.

"Erik is catching the ball much better than ever. He just needs to understand that his time will come," said Karl Dorrell, Colorado receivers' coach.

It has been a difficult year for Mitchell: he was arrested last spring near City Park in Denver when police discovered a gun under the seat in his car. He was with two other players and there had been a gang shooting near the neighboring Denver Zoo and shortly afterward, Mitchell and his friends were stopped.

Mitchell was running track at the time for Colorado--McCartney had given some upperclassmen players the choice of running track or participating in spring football--and was suspended from the NCAA championships.

McCartney also suspended Mitchell from Colorado's season opener against Texas because of the incident.

But there was no guarantee that Mitchell would have played in the game, anyway. Mitchell showed up at camp this summer to discover his spot on the depth chart, behind Johnson and redshirt freshman James Kidd.

"(Kidd) is ahead of me because I didn't do spring ball," Mitchell said. "Coach Mac told us that (skipping spring ball) wouldn't hurt us, but it did.

"If I'd have known that it was going to hurt us, I wouldn't have run track."

But Johnson and tailback Lamont Warren ran track and they are starting. Dorrell said not participating in spring ball hurt Mitchell, but not because the coaches had anything against him.

"When you give someone else an opportunity to improve themselves and make themselves better while you're not there . . . I think it's a case of that," Dorrell said. "The kid ahead of him (Kidd) did go through spring drills and made a tremendous improvement.

"But it's healthy competition. It helps out both of them."

Four years ago, Mitchell was a tailback at Los Alamitos, where he rushed for 1,038 yards and 20 touchdowns and caught 16 passes for 269 yards and three more touchdowns as a senior. But when you're a 5-foot-8, 152-pound tailback, about the only thing you're good for at the Division I level is scout team meat. The coaches converted him to wide receiver because of his speed and soft hands.

Now 5-8, 166, Mitchell still prefers tailback over receiver although, for now, he would just like to get back into the lineup.

"It's a big adjustment from playing a lot last year to playing only a little this year," he said. "At times, you think the coaches have no confidence in you.

"On special teams, I just try to make the best out of it that I can."

Dorrell says Mitchell definitely fits into Colorado's plans next year, what with the loss of Johnson and with the strong possibility that Westbrook will leave school a year early for the NFL.

Until then, Mitchell can't do much else other than hope the door creaks open for him this year.

Given all of the hoopla surrounding the Miami game this week, there is one small consolation to Mitchell.

Miami is no Nebraska.

"I wouldn't say this is the biggest game of the year, but it's up there," Mitchell said. "The biggest is probably Nebraska."

This year, that game arrives on Oct. 30. By then, Mitchell hopes, maybe he won't have to leave most of his game on the practice field.

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