By Tim Pickwell
Torrey Pines High School Senior Jack Mitchell is a good student, with a 4.0 GPA—high enough to earn San Diego Union-Tribune All Academic Team Honors in football. But, his grades likely weren’t high enough to get him into one of the top academic universities in the nation.
Fortunately, the 6’ 3” 205 lb. varsity football and baseball player had another asset: a powerful right leg. Mitchell demonstrated the ability to kick a 48-yard field goal in a game as a sophomore, and routinely put his kick-offs into the end zone for touchbacks in his two varsity seasons. He averaged 40 yards on his punts, while also starting at cornerback and wide receiver.
These skills, but primarily his kicking, have earned him “preferred walk-on” status with the Big 10’s Northwestern University. The chance to play football is big, but just getting into a top school (NU is No. 12 in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings) was the goal.
“When we started this whole process, we were hoping to leverage baseball or football to get into a school that he might not otherwise get into,” said his mother, Sarah Mitchell. “He received an offer from Duke to be a preferred walk-on and had other options with other good schools, but, nothing could compare to the feeling at Northwestern.”
“It seemed like a home for me,” said Jack Mitchell. “The head coach and the football program were impressive, and the coaches were very outgoing throughout the whole recruiting process. It’s a great school and a great opportunity.”
The days when future starters might just enroll at a school and “walk on” to the football team without a scholarship are long gone. Walk-ons are evaluated, considered, recruited—and even rejected.
“Never in our program’s history have we had more young men interested in walking on than we did this year,” said NU head football coach Pat Fitzgerald. “With our roster limits it was a very competitive process for walk-ons. We are excited that Jack will be joining the Northwestern Football Family. Jack caught the eye of our staff with his strong leg and as we learned more about him we felt he would be a great fit in our program. Not only does Jack have the ability to kick the ball out of the end zone, but he is an athlete. It is always a bonus when a specialist can do more than kick and punt.”
In fact, after Mitchell committed, the school’s Director of Player Personnel emailed to say that the Offensive Coordinator had looked at all his film, and wants him to try out at wide receiver as well.
Northwestern’s policy is to not offer scholarships to kicking specialists their first year. The current plan is for Mitchell to redshirt his freshman year (i.e., practice, but not play in order to gain experience and retain an extra year of college eligibility) and earn a scholarship for follow-on years. “I know the instruction I received from [head] Coach [Scott] Ashby and the Torrey Pines coaches has prepared me for the next step,” says Mitchell about potentially trying out for two positions. “I’ll miss Torrey Pines, but I’m looking forward to taking it to the next level.”
Grading and judging high school athletes can be haphazard. But, kickers can be measured pretty objectively: How far can they kick, and what is the hang time? Mitchell’s summer between junior and senior seasons was hampered by a recurring hamstring injury. He wasn’t able to attend several college football camps that he hoped would earn him some attention. But, he was able to attend some specialized kicking combines in the fall that got him ranked as high as 39th in the nation for high school and junior college kicking recruits. At Northwestern, there is a clear focus on academics – even for the football team. Among the nation’s elite Division I football programs, Northwestern is second only to Stanford in overall GPA for their football team. According to Sarah Mitchell, Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald puts a focus on graduating all of the football players in four years. Fitzgerald also requires that all players do a summer internship with a Northwestern alum at a business in downtown Chicago, a big selling point for the Mitchell parents.
The Mitchells were also interested in the caliber of the coaches that their son would be spending time with for the next 4-5 years. They were very pleased by the energy and enthusiasm displayed by the 38-year old head coach, who, according to the Chicago Tribune, was offered $2.5 million by Michigan to leave NU and take the head coaching vacancy that ultimately went to SDSU’s Brady Hoke. Fitzgerald was a two-time Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Award winner and team leader of NU’s back-to-back Big Ten title-winning teams in the mid-’90’s. Fitzgerald was inducted into the College Football Hall-of-Fame in 2009.
“I am so thrilled that this man is going to be guiding my son,” said Sarah Mitchell. “This is an amazing opportunity for Jack.”