Hawkeye running backs coach Chris White explains how Mitchell got noticed.
IOWA CITY – The swap of St. Louis sophomores-to-be makes perfect sense, on paper. Iowa football coaches and fans hope it plays out just as crisply on the field.
This spring, Jonathan Parker has gone from running back to wide receiver. Derrick Mitchell Jr. went from wideout to running back.
Third-year Hawkeye receivers coach Bobby Kennedy "hated to lose" Mitchell, who at 6-foot-1 is listed seven pounds heavier (at 212) than he was last fall.
"I thought he was possibly getting ready to kind of emerge in the wide receiver group," Kennedy said.
But Kennedy understands why. Successfully impersonating former Wisconsin 2,000-yard rusher Melvin Gordon, as Mitchell did on the scout team in November, is difficult to pull off.
"We got off the practice field, and all the defensive coaches are just raving about how they couldn't tackle this kid," Mitchell's new coach, running backs boss Chris White, said this week.
So, coaches asked Mitchell if he'd like to switch positions. He played some running back at St. Louis' Vashon High School. And having seen extremely limited snaps as a receiver in his first non-redshirt season, Mitchell welcomed the change.
He's become one of this spring's most intriguing Hawkeye stories. With co-starters Jordan Canzeri and LeShun Daniels Jr. being kept out of contact in Saturday's live-tackle action (because of their injury history), Mitchell took advantage by reeling off a couple long runs.
"He's going to push for some playing time," White said.
Physically, Mitchell equates to Damon Bullock (6-0, 205), who excelled in a third-down role as a senior (25 catches in his first six games) before he got sidetracked with injuries. White deemed Mitchell "tailor made" to plug into Iowa's offense as a third-and-distance back. He can catch, and he doesn't shy away from pass protection — a key prerequisite to being a third-down specialist.
"He's got tremendous ball skills," White said. "He catches the ball effortlessly, and obviously he's a great route runner from Coach Kennedy's two years with him."
The Hawkeyes' running backs and special teams coach likes what happened over the winter.
The public will get their first glimpse of Mitchell wearing No. 32 (he was No. 85 as a receiver) at Saturday's 12:30 p.m. open practice at Valley Stadium in West Des Moines.
Fans also will see Parker almost exclusively as a pass-catcher.
At 5-8, 185, the product of St. Louis' Christian Brothers High School was a running back last year mostly used on the jet-sweep play. But with Akrum Wadley emerging as a more sturdy backfield option, Parker (who kept jersey No. 10) found more upside at wide receiver — especially with deep burner Damond Powell (5-11, 180) out of eligibility.
Only two of Iowa's top six pass-catchers are back from last year, so Parker fills a need. He's been kept busy this spring, teammates say. The goal is to get Parker the ball in open space. He showed game-changing bursts last fall, with a 60-yard touchdown run against Indiana and a 34-yard catch-and-run off a tipped pass at Purdue.
Parker has "been a good addition, not only for our group but ... for our team," Kennedy said. "Getting him on the field and allowing him to play in different situations rather than just on the fly sweep, I think, will not only help that play, but also he's got very good hands. I'm excited to see him progress this spring."
HAWKEYE FOOTBALL IN CENTRAL IOWA
What: Iowa football open practice
When, where: Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Valley Stadium (4440 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines)
Admission: Free. No tickets are necessary. Concession stands will be open.
Parking: Valley Church, adjacent to Valley Stadium, will have limited public parking until 4:30 p.m. Additional parking is available at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School, Jordan Creek Elementary, the West Des Moines city hall and library. Fans are encouraged to car pool. Access to most parking is available off of Fuller Drive and/or 39th Street. There are paved walking paths on the surrounding campus that lead to the stadium.