Jackson Mitchell was walking off the field at Clemson last November following a humiliating loss, one of the long series through which he played during his first three years at UConn. Jim Mora, the newly hired coach, there to observe what he’d be inheriting, stopped him.
“We’re going to figure this out,” Mora told him. “We’re going to turn this around.”
Mitchell had to have heard that many times before. When he came to UConn after Boston College stopped talking to him, through his freshman year, the COVID-cancelled 2020 season and the disastrous 2021. But something about Mora’s brand of belief, the resume behind it, the forceful personality expressing it, gave him hope.
“He was just really genuine,” Mitchell said. “And in the conversations we had after that, he called me and asked my thoughts about certain things and about the team. He kind of just believed in me right from the start. He saw I was a leader on the team and knew I was a guy he could trust. Everything he said was true, real.”
Even through the one-sided losses in 2019 and 2021, it was easy, even for un-seasoned eyes, to see Mitchell was a keeper, could play linebacker on any team in the country and was the right guy to lead the transition from where the UConn football program was, rock bottom, to where Mora envisioned taking it.
And there was Mitchell on Saturday, linking past, present and future at Rentschler Field, which was mostly filled, with 25,527, and no one moving toward the exits. Time and again, he was in the right place at the right moment, bursting through the middle sack the quarterback and kill one Boston College possession in the third quarter, intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble and recovering another in the fourth quarter as UConn’s defense, once considered one of the worst in history shut down an ACC opponent to clinch the 13-3 victory, the most satisfying victory these fans had seen in ages.
“That’s how you leave a legacy right there,” Mora said. “You come up with those kinds of plays in the fourth quarter when your name’s Jackson Mitchell.”
It would be hard to overstate how much this victory means to UConn but, what the heck, let’s give it a shot. UConn had never beaten Boston College, just a couple of scoreless ties in 1908 and 1910, and 12 losses by an average of 23 points. That’s on the field. Off it, BC’s bolting the Big East removed the first block in the Jenga tower UConn had signed on to join, starting the tumble to no-program’s land. There were lawsuits and the loud claims that it was Boston College that barred the ACC’s door to UConn in 2011.
And then there was the perception, stronger than ever as Mitchell was finishing up his career at Ridgefield High in 2018, that UConn was merely the fallback for a New England player deemed not good enough for Chestnut Hill and the Power Five.
“They kind of recruited me a little bit,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t good enough for their standards, I guess.”
What happened was, Mitchell had gone to BC’s camps, but his time in a 40-yard dash wasn’t fast enough. “It wasn’t the fastest 40, they kind of just stopped talking to me,” Mitchell said. “It was what it was.”
He didn’t have to run 40 yards to make many of the 12 tackles he did on Saturday, playing with a broken thumb no less, but when he did, Mitchell beat everyone to the ball to recover BC’s muffed a punt with 4:06 left, sealing the game.
It wasn’t only Mitchell that caught Mora’s eye at the start. Another linebacker, Ian Swenson, and offensive guard Christian Haynes were also identified as wingmen as the new coach took the wheel. If any players ever had a reason to give up on a program and make a fresh start elsewhere, it would have been any of them. They stayed, and led.
“The guys in that locker room, I couldn’t leave,” Mitchell said. “Those are my guys for the rest of my life. I love them, I appreciate them and there was really no thought of abandoning them or leaving them, especially with Coach Mora coming in.”
As the crowd roared and the marching band blared, Mitchell stayed at midfield talking to CBS Sports Network’s Sherree Burress, soaking in some well-earned time in a national spotlight after years in the shadows. Even at the worst of times, Mitchell had the look of a future NFL defender; on Saturday, against a Power Five offense, he reached another level — and he lifted the Huskies (4-5) with him.
First win over a Power Five since 2016. A win over UMass next week and UConn finishes 2-0 against New England’s FBS programs. Liberty and Army follow, and with those games the chance to finish with a winning record for the first time in since 2010. It’s a far cry from the program Jackson Mitchell joined, and who can say where he will leave it?
“Anytime you go through ups and downs and grind it out and finally reach that success, it makes it feel that much sweeter,” Mitchell said. “And to do it in Connecticut, where I’m from, is huge. I think this is just the start, really, just a start for me and for this entire defense and team. This win is going to start a new chapter in UConn football, I think. ... For anyone in New England, Connecticut, this is going to be the place to be soon. Right now, it’s the place to be. We’re about to do something really special here.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com