ATHENS, Ga. -- Malcolm Mitchell is not particularly tired of being asked when he might play more on Georgia's offense, because those conversations usually don’t last long.
“It doesn’t bother me, because the good thing is I’ve only got one answer -- I don’t know,” Mitchell said after Georgia defeated Vanderbilt 48-3 on Saturday night. “I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt has a firmer grasp on what the versatile sophomore’s role will be, however, and he sees Mitchell’s time as an almost exclusively defensive player nearing its end.
“Malcolm’s going to play more offense, I hope, as the season goes on,” Richt said of Mitchell, who won Freshman All-SEC honors last season at receiver after catching 45 passes for 665 yards. “I’ve said from the beginning, I hope he’ll play more offense as we go.”
Richt credited Mitchell for selflessly volunteering to chip in at cornerback this fall after disciplinary issues damaged the Bulldogs’ depth in the secondary. Senior Sanders Commings returned to the fold two games ago against Florida Atlantic, and senior Bacarri Rambo might be back this Saturday against Tennessee, so Mitchell’s defensive presence won’t be as necessary once the secondary is back at full strength.
For now, he remains a work in progress at cornerback, although a necessary contributor at the position. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham often compliments Mitchell for his aggressive play and for his potential, but opponents regularly test the converted receiver in coverage.
“I’ll just say I wasn’t focused -- definitely the one in the fourth quarter,” said Mitchell, who has started the last three games at cornerback and is second on the team with three pass breakups. “I guess it’s just part of playing the game. You get beat here and there. It shouldn’t happen, definitely when we had such a roll going. But you’ve got to move on to the next play.”
Mitchell’s return to a greater role on offense will enable him to serve as the legitimate two-way player he hoped to be when he began moonlighting on defense -- and not the occasional contributor on offense who might touch the ball only once or twice in a given game.
“I think he misses having the ball thrown to him and that type thing, and he really has been a guy who’s sacrificed for the team, I think,” Richt said. “I think his idea of playing both ways was doing what he’s been doing on offense and helping out on defense. I don’t think his idea was to be a full-time defensive football player.
“So he’s done a good job of staying in the gap for us when we needed him to. In time, he’ll play more offensive snaps.”
Mitchell said he has not practiced much with the Bulldogs’ offense in the last two weeks, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has put the ball in his hands a time or two in each game. He ran a screen pass (for a 6-yard loss) and a reverse (for a 16-yard gain) for Mitchell against Vanderbilt and immediately went up top to the sophomore for a 49-yard deep pass on his lone reception against FAU.
“I still think one of our most explosive players is still over there on defense,” Bobo said afterward, referring to Mitchell. “He got his one play and made an explosive play.”
That explosive element has still existed in Georgia’s offense, as wideouts Tavarres King, Marlon Brown and Michael Bennett all have made catches of 58 yards or better in the Bulldogs’ first four games. But the deep ball is Mitchell’s specialty, with six career catches of 40-plus yards.
He unquestionably would make an already potent passing game even more explosive while providing another athletic presence in the secondary when Grantham needs another capable defensive back.
That’s what Mitchell expected when he shifted to cornerback in the spring, and that’s what Richt sees as the probable outcome once Rambo returns.
“Our team has done a good job of, especially our defense guys, stepping into roles that are more than they probably would have been if there wasn’t anybody losing any playing time,” said Richt, who refused to confirm Sunday whether Rambo will be available against Tennessee. “Even Malcolm Mitchell’s situation, I’m not sure he would have ever left the receiver position unless some of these things happened.
“I think Malcolm, even though he wanted to play both ways, I think he was probably visualizing the ability to continue to play offense and help out on defense [in a] where-needed type thing. It became the other way around.”
Even Richt doesn’t know if there will ever be a 50-50 split for Mitchell between offense and defense as he predicted before the season. He generally hints that Mitchell will be able to contribute both ways as the weather cools and it becomes easier for his body to tolerate a high snap count.
As for Mitchell, he remains in the dark about how his coaches will use him against Tennessee -- he set his career receiving high with 126 yards last season against the Vols -- or whether his original vision of becoming a genuine two-way player will come to fruition.
“I would just say I really just don’t know,” Mitchell said. “We’ll see.”