Cam Mitchell had played in a handful of games as a redshirt freshman at Northwestern, but nothing like this.
The Wildcats faced Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 19, 2020. Mitchell was pressed into a first-team cornerback role in the second quarter when Greg Newsome II exited with an injury, and Northwestern led at halftime before eventually falling 22-10.
Mitchell seized the opportunity, blossoming under the bright lights. He had an interception and half-sack of Justin Fields and four tackles.
“Ready to go,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told The Chronicle-Telegram by phone last week. “We brought him in off the edge, got a huge sack against Justin early in the game. That shows his football acumen and his football IQ.”
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Replacing Newsome vs. the Buckeyes is one on a long list of connections between the close friends who’ve known each other since they were kids in the Chicago area. They played seven-on-seven together, Newsome helped Mitchell land at Northwestern and welcomed him to Cleveland when the Browns drafted him in the fifth round, No. 142 overall, on April 29.
Fitzgerald is “just ecstatic” two of his favorites have been reunited.
“So excited, man, fired up, two of our all-time bests and they’re so close,” he said. “So to have that happen, first thing I did is I texted Coach (Kevin) Stefanski, thanked him for taking another one of our guys.”
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Mitchell (5-foot-10¾, 191 pounds) had visited Newsome during his first two years with the Browns after being the No. 26 pick in 2021. Having someone he knows so well on the same team should benefit Mitchell during the difficult transition to the NFL.
“No doubt. And then you have an Anthony there, too,” Fitzgerald said, referencing linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., another Northwestern alum. “I’ve never met anybody successful that hasn’t had a mentor. And to have someone that you’re so close with in the organization, playing the position you play, it’s just gonna help you through the challenging parts that are really hard to deal with as an athlete, and that’s the unknown. What’s OTAs gonna be like, what’s training camp gonna be like, what’s the defense like? Just to have somebody there that’s been there, done that to help mentor you is just completely invaluable.”
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Mitchell will join the rest of the draft class this weekend at rookie minicamp in Berea.
Newsome called Mitchell’s feet his best attribute. Fitzgerald had another answer.
“Cam is physical,” he said. “You watch our Penn State game last year and he had 20-ish tackles. It’s a monsoon, you think, oh, you’re just gonna be shadow boxing out there on the outside, and he had just a great game. I would couple that just with a high level of compete. He’s a very competitive guy that’s really, really physical.”
The feet, physicality and competitiveness showed up as Mitchell started 24 of 35 games at Northwestern, totaling 119 tackles, 3.5 for loss, two interceptions, 22 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. He was a two-time All-Big Ten honorable mention and ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine.
The Browns are excited for him to be part of a deep and talented cornerback room and believe he can contribute immediately on special teams.
“He’s tough. He’s got the speed, quickness, he’s physically built,” area scout Dan Zegers said. “He’s got the speed to run down there and he’s a willing tackler. He’s got the mindset to do it.”
“I’m just trying to get on the field any way I can,” Mitchell said during the draft. “Special teams is something I’ve always done throughout my entire career and that’s something I expected being a part of my role my first year, so I’m excited for it.”
The Browns have Denzel Ward, Newsome and Martin Emerson Jr. atop the depth chart at outside corner, but Mitchell could compete with Newsome, A.J. Green and Thomas Graham Jr. for snaps in the slot depending on how new coordinator Jim Schwartz decides to use Newsome and set up his sub packages.
“He’s a really versatile player,” former Browns and Northwestern defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil told The Chronicle about Mitchell before the draft. “I’ve been getting calls about him as nickel corner/sub safety, so it’s just however you see him in your defense.”
Mitchell believes he can “flourish outside and inside” thanks to his understanding of all three levels of the defense. Newsome was frustrated by playing so much in the slot last year, as he felt the role was often more linebacker than cornerback.
“I know that the defense is going to be a little bit different than it was last year. He obviously didn’t feel like he could affect the game as much on the inside,” Mitchell said. “I played slot a little bit in my career, especially early on, so that’s a role that I’m not new to.”
With a loaded cornerback group, Schwartz will likely play a lot of press man-to-man coverage. He told the scouts he wanted guys with good instincts, play speed and ball awareness.
Newsome has seen all of that in Mitchell for years and wasn’t surprised when he burst on the scene vs. Ohio State.
“We knew it from the whole season,” Newsome said. “He was just a younger guy, so he didn’t really have the opportunities. But as you can see, when he was granted the opportunity, he did what he was supposed to do.
“Even this past year against a great Ohio State Buckeye team, he held arguably the best receiver in the country to a very minimal day. So I think that shows you exactly where his ceiling is.”
Marvin Harrison Jr. had five catches for 51 yards in the Ohio State win.
“I prepare for every game the same way, but you know when you have games like that, you circle them,” Mitchell said. “You look forward to those a little bit differently and when you see those kinds of matchups, you don’t run from them, you run to them. I knew that those were the games that were going to get me the looks that I needed to get to this level that I’m at right now.”
Newsome wanted to create a legacy of future NFL corners at Northwestern, leaving his number for Mitchell.
“He wore No. 2 and did big things from it,” Newsome said.