After Oregon’s spring game back in April, now former-Duck Darren Carrington talked about then-freshman wide receiver Dillon Mitchell. The two had grown close over a tumultuous 4-8 season the past fall, a season where Mitchell played sparingly.
“He’s like my little brother,” Carrington said. “I try and show him everything so he can take over when I’m gone.”
At the time, Carrington still had one more year of collegiate eligibility. But his time at Oregon ended before expected. Just three months after the spring game, Oregon dismissed Carrington after he was arrested for a DUII in early July.
Like that, Oregon’s top receiver was gone, and with his dismissal, Mitchell became a candidate for major playing time at wideout. Given his progression over the past year, that role would have become his eventually. But suddenly, Mitchell inherited it whether he was ready to or not.
Now, with a season under his belt and some newfound confidence, he’ll be tasked with helping lead a young and inexperienced wide receiver corps this season as Oregon looks to return to national prominence.
If you ask him, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mitchell, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, grew up a Duck fan. He remembers watching the flashy, no-huddle offense of the Chip Kelly era and the electrifying athletes that wore different uniform combinations every game.
Oregon won him over. He imagined himself as Josh Huff or De’Anthony Thomas, two of his favorite players, scoring game-winning touchdowns and competing for national championships.
That’s why, when football powerhouses like Ohio State, Alabama, Florida State and Notre Dame came knocking, Mitchell said no. His dream was to be a Duck.
“Oregon has been my favorite school since I was a young kid,” Mitchell said. “I watched them growing up. I chose my decision based off of going to my dream school.”
When he arrived at Oregon at the beginning of winter term in 2016, the Ducks already possessed a talented group of wide receivers and tight ends. It was assumed that while Mitchell was a highly-touted prospect, he’d have to wait for his opportunity on the field.
But Mitchell didn’t intend to wait around. He proved early on why he was such a sought-after recruit. Few players created the buzz that Mitchell did during Oregon’s 2016 spring practices. Players and coaches raved about his speed, athleticism and maturity.
That all led up to his outstanding performance in Oregon’s 2016 spring game where Mitchell caught seven passes for 104 yards and scored two touchdowns. All this only several months after he arrived on campus.
“For him to be able to function in a situation like today, as far as knowing our offense, he had to do a ton of work on his own,” then-offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said after the scrimmage. “He’s only been here for three months.”
If expectations were high for Mitchell before he arrived at Oregon, that bar was set even higher given his spring game performance.
Unfortunately for Mitchell, Oregon was still deep at receiver and tight end. To make matters worse, he suffered a knee injury in fall camp and quickly fell out of the rotation. His duties, in the six games he played in last season, revolved mainly around returning punts and kickoffs. He finished the year with only two receptions for nine total yards. He also returned seven punts and three kickoffs for 75 total yards.
Living on his own for the first time in his life didn’t help, and only made the tough situation worse.
“I rushed myself a lot last year and that started to frustrate me and it put me into — I wouldn’t say a deep depression — but I had to get my mind right,” Mitchell said at Oregon’s media day this year.
Mitchell admitted he was never comfortable last season and it was his confidence that suffered the most. Coming into college, he felt he could take any corner or safety he went against. But the role he saw for himself at Oregon never materialized his freshman year and his confidence disappeared.
So he went to work this summer to get it back. He hit the gym and described himself as a “madman” during his workouts. When he wasn’t at the gym, he was watching film or talking with family, two outlets he credits for his newfound confidence.
He returned to fall camp this August practically a new person.
“I don’t know how to say this, but I took on a type of Conor McGregor personality,” Mitchell said. “I’m willing to go to combat for any of my teammates.”
While in reality the soft-spoken sophomore wide receiver and hot-headed Irish Mixed Martial Arts fighter have little in common, Mitchell said it’s the mentality of McGregor he’s trying to mirror.
“It’s more so like my hunger and my attitude coming into this season,” Mitchell said. “Nothing like McGregor with the disrespect; that’s not me.”
Coaches and players alike have raved about the progress Mitchell made from spring to fall. Those who knew him last season say they’ve definitely seen a change.
“I think he’s kind of come out his shell,” sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert said. “He’s more talkative and he’s just a great guy to be around.”
“I think he’s getting his confidence back,” sophomore wide-receiver Alex Ofodile said. “Kinda getting his legs up under him. It’s good to see. When you’re confident, it makes a huge difference. I think him getting his confidence back in the biggest improvement I’ve seen.”
Even members of the coaching staff, who have only known Mitchell since they arrived in winter, have noticed a change.
“We’ve seen a lot more of that this training camp,” head coach Willie Taggart said. “He’s talking more, he’s smiling more, he’s laughing, and he’s making plays for us. I think he’s growing up and believing in himself and knowing that this football team is going to lean on him.”
All signs point to Mitchell having a breakout season this year as Oregon’s season opener against Southern Utah approaches. But if Mitchell really wants to be the next Thomas or Huff, he’ll need to turn that confidence into results on the field.
That’s where wide receiver coach Michael Johnson comes in. Johnson’s coaching career spans over 20 years, with ten of those in the NFL. He’s coached some incredibly talented players over his career. If there’s anyone who can unlock Mitchell’s full potential, it’s Johnson.
“I’m kind of hard on Dillon Mitchell a little bit because I’m trying to get the most out of him,” Johnson said. “He’s a guy that has the ability to be one of your top one or two guys on your football team.”
High praise from a man who coached a prime Michael Vick, mentored Derrick Mason and helped develop Drew Brees.
The one hesitation with Mitchell is his inexperience. Betting on a guy with two career collegiate receptions to shoulder the load as a receiver is a gamble.
“He’s young,” Johnson said. “He’s still learning how to be that guy every single day.”
But Mitchell doesn’t think about that. He just wants to get back to playing the type of football he knows he’s capable of.
“I don’t really look at it as pressure because I’ve been playing football for so long,” Mitchell said. “Yeah, it’s a great opportunity to showcase my skills, especially for the Oregon fans who have been waiting on me since spring of last year. So I’m just ready for this year.”
Follow Gus Morris on Twitter @JustGusMorris