The decision would have seemed easy. Brant Mitchell was born at the University of Tennessee hospital, grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., cheered for his beloved Volunteers in Neyland Stadium and dreamed of one day wearing Tennessee orange.
In Knoxville, Mitchell said, “Everybody does.”
And, as a star two-way player at the Webb School, about 12 miles west of the Tennessee campus, Mitchell received a scholarship offer to play for the Volunteers. But, it didn’t happen. Mitchell is a Georgia Tech linebacker. When the two teams meet Monday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, he’ll be trying to punish Tennessee running backs and thwart the team he cheered for as a child.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Mitchell said. “Up in Knoxville, it’s a great atmosphere and I know they travel well. They always have. And I think Mercedes-Benz Stadium is going to be an absolutely amazing experience. I mean, it’s going to be awesome.”
A-back Nathan Cottrell also came to Tech from Knoxville, a graduate of West High, about three miles southwest of the Tennessee campus. While not offered a scholarship to Tennessee, Cottrell also grew up with dreams of playing for the Volunteers.
“I’m not going to lie – I’ve had this game marked on my calendar since it got announced,” said Cottrell, who was not offered a scholarship by Tennessee. “I’m excited. It’s going to be a big game.”
Mitchell’s decision to pass on a dream hinged on the strength of a Tech degree.
“I had to kind of step back and take a look at the whole process and what all was going on with everything in recruiting and stuff and make the best decision for me,” Mitchell said. “And ultimately, this was the best one, because I wanted the best academic school and the best football school combined, and that’s what I found here at Georgia Tech.”
Mitchell, a self-described “math and science guy,” said before his arrival to Tech that he had planned as far back as seventh grade to earn a football scholarship and study engineering. Tech’s undergraduate engineering school is ranked in a tie for fourth nationally by U.S. News & World Report.
As it turned out, the grind of engineering proved overbearing for Mitchell, as sometimes happens at Tech. He has switched majors, from mechanical engineering to finance. His post-football career prospects won’t diminish greatly. According to self-reported data, the median starting salary for graduates of the Tech business school in spring 2017 was $61,500.
“College is supposed to be fun, you’re supposed to have a good time, but, also, after you get done, if you don’t play in the NFL, which, that doesn’t last long anyway, you’ve got to go find a job,” Mitchell said. “So I wanted to put myself in the best position to be able to do that and be successful in my career outside of college.”
The football side has worked out OK, too. Mitchell was a backup linebacker as a freshman before starting 13 games last season and making 71 tackles, fourth on the team. He goes into this season with a new partner at linebacker in the defense’s 4-2-5 alignment, most likely Victor Alexander, to replace P.J. Davis.
As a junior, he is the most experienced member of the linebacking group, an ensemble of 10 scholarship players that includes three freshmen. In class standing, only Terrell Lewis, a part-time starter last season, is above Mitchell.
“P.J. was a great player – it’s hard to replace something like that,” Mitchell said. “But at the same time, we’ve got a lot of guys that are really good right behind him that are playing hard this year.”
Mitchell figures to be centrally involved in Monday’s outcome. With a size advantage along the line of scrimmage, Tennessee is likely to give running back John Kelly plenty of attempts with the ball, and Mitchell will be tasked with limiting the damage. Cottrell, too, will have a role as part of the A-back rotation and at kick returner.
Beating their once beloved Volunteers might have struck horror to their younger selves, but it would undoubtedly be a memory to savor.
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