Kawika Mitchell, LB/1999-2002
USF caught a huge break when Kawika Mitchell decided to transfer to the Bulls after a redshirt season at Georgia. Mitchell slid right into the starting lineup at weakside linebacker at the start of the 1999 season, and he ended up starting all 43 games he played in. Along the way, he moved from weakside to middle linebacker and back again, and turned into a matchup nightmare for any opposing team. By his senior year in 2002, Mitchell was the complete package, a 6'2", 255-pound wrecking ball who could also run a 4.5 40. He was destined for the NFL, but not before becoming the best linebacker in school history.
Mitchell is USF's career tackles leader with 367, and he led the team in tackles in each of his last three seasons. His 117 tackles in 2002 are the second-highest single season total in USF history, and he also tied for second in school history with 19 tackles for loss that season. On top of that, he was named the team's defensive MVP and he was invited to play in the Hula Bowl in his native Hawaii.
And it all nearly didn't happen. During the summer of 2002, Mitchell was riding in the passenger seat of a car that was traveling at about 50 miles an hour when it got into an accident. Mitchell was thrown through the windshield and out of the car, going about 30 or 40 feet by his own estimation, and landing flat on the pavement. Most people would have been badly injured, or even killed, in an accident like that. But Mitchell's thick linebacker body absorbed a lot of the force of impact, and he only suffered a separated shoulder. Mitchell was able to recover in time for the start of the season.
In addition to his outstanding college career, Mitchell is probably the most accomplished Bull in the NFL. Kawika was drafted in the second round by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2003, at the time the highest draft pick ever from USF. Mitchell is now entering his eighth NFL season, and his third with the Buffalo Bills, where he was a defensive captain last season. He also won a Super Bowl with the 2007 Giants, becoming one of only three former Bulls to win a ring. (Kenyatta Jones and Ryan Benjamin are the other two.) Mitchell's NFL totals include 488 tackles, 12 sacks, six interceptions, six fumble recoveries, and three touchdowns.
Anyone who got to watch him every week knew how great Kawika Mitchell was. But he saved his best game at USF for the one time everyone was watching. More after the jump.
The Bulls' first-ever game on national television was on September 28, 2002, when they visited #2 Oklahoma in Norman. TBS broadcast the game, with Ron Thulin and Charles Davis in the booth, along with Craig Sager and someone named Erin Andrews (seen here riding the Sooner Schooner) doing one of her first football games on the sidelines. Seems like a nice young woman - I wonder what happened to her.
(I was at this game too, and when she came up into the USF section for an interview during the game - we're saving that for another time - they set up a couple of rows behind me. I specifically remember not wanting to make eye contact because I'm sure I would have been caught leering at her on national TV. That would not have been good times.)
Anyway, the game. The Bulls lost 31-14, and you're not going to believe this from a Jim Leavitt team of that era, but they dug their own grave with mental errors and a boatload of ill-timed penalties. USF did have a pretty strong game on defense, though, and Kawika Mitchell had the strongest. He was all over the field with 12 tackles, five TFL, two sacks, and a forced fumble. His Richter-scale hit on Kejuan Jones near the goal line in the second quarter is one of the hardest hits I can remember. And it was a perfectly-timed game for the Butkus Award candidate, because not only did Kawika's dad in Hawaii finally get to see him play, but it got him a lot of attention from people who had never seen him play, including some NFL personnel, no doubt.
Here's a highlight reel of Mitchell's big night in Norman.
Previous entries: #5 - Andre Hall, #6 - Anthony Henry, #7 - Mike Jenkins, #8 - Stephen Nicholas, #9 - George Selvie, #10 - Nate Allen, #11 - DeAndrew Rubin, #12 - Hugh Smith, #13 - Kenyatta Jones, #14 - Ben Moffitt, #15 - Chad Barnhardt