Mitchell’s breakout performance worth the wait and work

When he entered the transfer portal following the 2021 season, Northern Colorado wide receiver Jaren Mitchell was a proven commodity – a record-setting pass catcher who could make an immediate impact at his next stop.

Mitchell chose Northwestern State as his new destination, but the durability and production he showcased while at Northern Colorado did not make the trip south. Instead, an early-season ankle injury put a damper on Mitchell’s NSU debut season.

Appropriately enough when Mitchell enjoyed a breakout game this past Saturday against Louisiana Tech, setting his Demon career highs in catches (4) and receiving yards (60), the emotions caught up with him.

“Throughout the game, I didn’t realize what was going on,” said Mitchell, who caught one pass in five games in the 2022 season. “I knew I was making plays, but I just wanted to win the game. After the game is when I felt it the most. I had so many emotions hit me at once. They didn’t hit me until I got on the bus.

“Just being out there was something that meant the world to me. I was injured last year and didn’t get to contribute like I wanted to. To be able to get back out there with the guys and compete again was something I needed.”

Mitchell’s track record at Northern Colorado portended what fans in Ruston saw this past Saturday, but it was went unseen that helped him work his way back into the NSU starting lineup where he will be for this Saturday’s 6 p.m. home opener against former Southland Conference rival Stephen F. Austin.

After suffering what he described as the first significant injury of his collegiate career, Mitchell leaned on those he felt closest to – his fellow NSU wide receivers – as he worked his way through the stages of his rehab.

“Their support was huge,” Mitchell said. “Last year, with me not being able to contribute, I had to put that cheerleader suit on and be there for my guys in their up and down moments – just keeping them level-headed. I had to be their biggest fan. It was cool to see them do the same for me. Those guys mean everything to me. They’re who I spend the most time with. I consider them brothers, so their support was something special to me.”

The Demon receiving corps was not at full strength this past Saturday, which opened a door for Mitchell – one he broke through.

Included in his four catches was a 27-yarder on the Demons’ first snap of the second half that set up a 2-yard Kolbe Burrell touchdown run that sliced Louisiana Tech’s lead to 10 points.

Sixth-year Demon head coach Brad Laird harped on his team’s resiliency after this past Saturday’s game, but he could just have easily been pointing out Mitchell’s road to the starting lineup.

“As you go through an injury, the mental part often gets overlooked,” Laird said. “A lot of times that’s a bigger factor than the physical injury. I sat that because when J. Mitch came here, he’d had a lot of success at Northern Colorado – set their freshman record for receptions.

“You come in with a lot of expectations – not just us on him, but the expectations he has for himself. Last year, it was one thing after another. One, learning the system, and two, to have the injures come with it. You see how he got himself health. He did it in a way where he knew the only way to get back was hard work. Keep your head down and, at some point, he was going to have his opportunity. Once it came, he took advantage.”

Mitchell, a Dallas native, echoed his head coach’s words about having his opportunity and taking advantage

Along with the change in his availability, Mitchell has found focus off the field, something he credits his injury with bringing.

“It adjusts your outlook on life and gives you a different perspective on the game,” he said. “I feel like for me at that point, that was the first time I had the game taken away from me. When that happened, I didn’t know how to deal with it at first. It was something I had to overcome, and it took me a while to get out of that funk.

“After I did, I understood what was going on and accepted it, and it helped me embrace a lot of things and opened me up to a lot more. It helped me as a person. Before that, I thought football was the only thing. Now I realize it can be taken away at any time. Thankfully, (the injury) wasn’t something I couldn’t recover or come back from. I am thankful for it.”