The ball dropped out of the afternoon sky like a punt, Georgia Tech linebacker Brant Mitchell said. Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason’s desperation throw on the final play of the Yellow Jackets’ 28-27 win over the Bulldogs was collected by Mitchell at the Tech 15-yard line, setting off celebrations in every corner of the Tech fan base.
So excited was Mitchell that he flung the ball in the air, sending airborne what might have been a keepsake.
“I should have kept it,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “Everybody told me I should have.”
It was the second game in a row that Mitchell ended a Tech victory with an interception on the final play of the game, having caught Virginia quarterback Matt Johns’ last-gasp attempt the week prior.
“The guys are starting to call me ‘the Closer,’” Mitchell said.
It is not an unfitting nickname in another sense. Mitchell completed Tech’s regular season showing his best form of his career. The sophomore from Knoxville, Tenn., was credited with 30 tackles in the Jackets’ final three games, all wins. His season total going into the TaxSlayer Bowl matchup with Kentucky is 68.
“I saw him playing faster,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “Playing more instinctively and letting it go. That’s how you’ve got to play.”
It’s a typical progression. Mitchell started three games as a freshman in 2015 and has started every game this season. It’s not unsurprising to think that the collected experience has taught him to react to what is happening in front of him more quickly.
Mitchell showed better ability to fight off blocks and get to the ball.
“It’s just reps,” Roof said. “I think that was a part, and I think that he understands how you’ve got to prepare to get ready for a game.”
Mitchell credits improvement to private pre-practice video sessions with Roof to get a jump on what was ahead, both for practice and the upcoming opponent. The individual time with Roof, also his position coach, reinforced what he was learning in practice and cemented the game plan.
“I think that extra time helped me get mentally ready to go,” Mitchell said. “I think once you get mentally ready, and once you know what’s going to happen even before the snap even happens, I think that helped to let it go and fly around and let everybody else overlap.”
Mitchell’s improvement mirrored that of his defense, as the Jackets’ final three regular-season games, against Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia, were also three of the unit’s better performances. The last win meant a little more.
“Obviously, I’m from Tennessee, but I’ve become familiar with a lot of guys from this area and I’ve become friends with them,” Mitchell said. “It’s fun just to talk back and forth during the game, but it’s really a pride thing. You have to hear it 364 days after.”
Going forward, Mitchell has room for improvement. His game against Georgia might suggest where he can get better. His eight tackles, none for loss, stopped run plays that averaged 5.1 yards per play. In 12 games, he was light on impact plays – no forced fumbles or sacks, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries. His two interceptions, while game-ending, were in desperation situations. He can be a more explosive blitzer.
“I think for me personally, my pass rush, that’s got to get better, on the blitzes and stuff,” he said, “and working linemen and just using my hands more. That’ll be a real stress point for this offseason.”
Mitchell, who said he lost 10 pounds of body fat after the end of his freshman season, also wants to continue to shape his body. After making progress across 12 games this season, Mitchell, who is 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, has the opportunity to finish well in the bowl game before going into the offseason.
“I don’t want to put a limit or anoint anybody,” Roof said. “I just want him to show up every day wanting to improve with a burning desire to get better. And as long as he does that, he’ll be fine.”
And if he gets a third interception against the Wildcats, that’ll be O.K. with him.
“I’d enjoy that,” he said. “Maybe a little sooner in the game. Maybe closer to the other goal line, too.”