If one had asked former Neville High right tackle Max Mitchell prior to last season what his role would have been his first season with the UL Ragin’ Cajuns, he would have said "as a redshirt."
That’s a logical assumption to make of any two-star recruit on the offensive line.
As it turned out, Mitchell played in all 14 games for the Cajuns as a freshman, splitting time with junior starter Rico Robinson at left tackle.
It’s the beauty … and some would argue the curse … of being a coach.
“I definitely surprised myself,” said Mitchell, who is expected to make his third career start at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Texas Southern at Cajun Field. “I was about 290 pounds, so I thought I was in a good spot. They kind of dropped me a little bit in weight and kind of built my body back up with good muscle.
“I honestly expected to get redshirted, but they developed me with plays and I just developed pretty quickly with that and kind of took a liking to it. I surprised myself with that.”
If you asked Mitchell about his role this season heading into August training camp, he probably would have talked about getting more playing time behind Robinson at left tackle.
But by the first game of the season against Mississippi State, there Mitchell was outperforming expectations again.
Not only did he start the game at left tackle, but he also moved over to left guard when Ken Marks went down with a knee injury in the second quarter.
“It was definitely a curve ball, but I’ve taken reps at guard during practice, and kind of prepared in case our left guard did go down,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell’s contributions through his first 16 games with the Cajuns illustrate how much respect he’s earned from coach Billy Napier’s staff.
“Max was mature as a competitor, he’d played in the big game, he was physically developed enough to play early, and certainly right now he’s playing two positions for us and is a very valuable player on our team,” Napier said.
“Max has played all over the place throughout training camp. When you have an injury or so in spring ball or training camp, sometimes you’re all down in the dumps. But really, if you have the right perspective, it’s an opportunity to work on contingency plans as they come up with the season gets here.”
Mitchell said he is more familiar with playing tackle.
“I was semi-prepared,” Mitchell said. “I had some reps under my belt. It wasn’t a complete deal-breaker or anything, but it wasn’t as comfortable as tackle for sure.”
That’s why his smile is so big when discussing the progress of true freshman O’Cyrus Torrence at left guard.
“O’Cyrus stepped up and really, really took charge of that position when I moved back to tackle,” Mitchell said. “He’s been phenomenal. He knows what he’s doing. I think we’re fully confident in what we’re doing.”
It’s also why he’s grateful for new starting center Shane Vallot’s impressive handling of that position after returning senior starter Cole Prudhomme was lost during the spring.
“Shane Vallot really stepped up,” the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Mitchell said. “He’s very knowledgeable of the offense. He knows what he’s doing. We can play very fast there.”
There were a few moments early on in UL’s 35-14 win over Liberty where some Ragin’ Cajuns fans were likely beginning to worry about their defense.
For the coaching staff, led by offensive coordinator and fellow Neville High product Rob Sale, Mitchell’s high school experience definitely impacted UL’s assessment of him.
“The program that he came from, not only was he well coached but the strength and conditioning program at that school, that’s a winning program and they do it the right way,” Napier said.
“They’ve got a great offseason program, we’ve even brought one of their original strength coaches in to meet with coach (Mark) Hocke and our staff. He’d worked with the Atlanta Falcons, the Oakland Raiders, not to mention the fact that Mickey McCarty is kind of an offensive line type guy, he was ahead of the curve.”
In many ways, Percy Butler’s freshman season with the UL Ragin’ Cajuns was like a lot of kids who grew up in small towns.
Now two games into his sophomore season, Mitchell relishes his prediction for his freshman season was off base.