SAPAKOFF COLUMN: NFL running backs coach, former Citadel star Stump Mitchell predicts good things for Marcus Lattimore
There was no wall-to-wall NFL draft coverage in 1981, no live Twitter updates. No wisecracks about Mel Kiper Jr.'s hair.
“I can remember not being called until the next day,” Stump Mitchell recalled this week.
The Citadel's greatest football player was one of the best value picks in NFL draft history, a St. Louis Cardinals ninth-round choice worth 42 NFL touchdowns.
No team will get more player for less risk today.
Mitchell, 54, knows both sides of a draft that has fewer rounds than in 1981, and fewer 5-9, 188-pound running backs.
As a Citadel cadet, the St. Mary's, Ga., native waited for the phone to ring.
As an Arizona Cardinals running backs coach, he will sit in the “war room” this afternoon hoping a favorite running back prospect ends up with a flight to Phoenix.
“After being the number two rusher in college behind (South Carolina's) George Rogers, of course I was hoping to go a lot higher than a round that doesn't even exist now, which is the ninth round,” said Mitchell, still The Citadel's career rushing leader with 4,062 yards. “I was going to class and when I got a free opportunity, I was back in my room anticipating a call that never came. Then, the next day when it came, I can remember telling (Cardinals Director of Pro Personnel) Larry Wilson, 'I am going to make your damn ball club.' I was a little upset, frustrated, to say the least. But it all turned out well.”
George Rogers and L.T.
The 1981 draft opened with the New Orleans Saints selecting Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner, as the first overall pick. Then the New York Giants took Lawrence Taylor from North Carolina. A few picks later, the San Francisco 49ers tabbed Ronnie Lott.
But Mitchell had a better NFL career than more than half of the 1981 first-round picks. Extra versatile, he still holds the Cardinals record for all-purpose yards, amassing 11,988 as a running back, wide receiver, punt returner and kick returner from 1981-1989.
He threw a touchdown pass in 1986.
These days, Mitchell likes working with rookie running backs and sharing pointers like those he received in St. Louis upon showing up in the “Show Me” State.
“It is awesome giving these guys a chance to correct some of the things they have done wrong in the past,” Mitchell said. “I can remember Ottis Anderson being the (Cardinals) starting running back and one of the first things he told me when I was coming in was 'Hey, you are trying to go real fast, you need to have patience. You can be a heck of runner and I see you have talent.' It was awesome. Ottis was the starting running back and I was the ninth-round draft pick coming in trying to make the team and he was coaching me up. It was great.”
A lot has happened since then.
Mitchell has been a high school head coach in Arizona and at Morgan State, an NFL assistant coach with the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins and the head coach at Southern University.
The Cardinals struggled in St. Louis, moved to Arizona and kept losing. They reached the Super Bowl during the 2008 season, fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt after last season and hired Bruce Arians, who added Mitchell to his new staff.
Mitchell immediately got busy screening draft-available running backs. The group included South Carolina's popular Marcus Lattimore, who gained 2,677 yards and scored a team-record 41 touchdowns before suffering an infamous knee injury last October against Tennessee.
“I think he can make it in the NFL,” Mitchell said. “It is unfortunate what has happened to him, having two severe knee injuries to end his college career. Hopefully, he will be blessed where he can get in the league and stay healthy and recoup what he didn't get when he gets his second contract.”
In other words, the Stump Mitchell path to NFL success but with less waiting for the phone call.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.