CHARLESTON — Two years ago, Eastern Illinois needed help on the defensive side of the football after a key graduations, including the secondary. So EIU coach Kim Dameron needed to find a way to plug those holes. One of his ideas was to talk wide receiver Tray Mitchell into moving to the defensive backfield.
It wouldn't have been Mitchell's first time playing in the defensive backfield since he was a cornerback in high school. But as Mitchell put it, his team's high school blueprint for coverage compared to Dameron's philosophy wasn't as complex. Plus Mitchell already switched positions when he came to EIU. At Holt High School in Wentzville, Missouri, Mitchell was a running back and rushed for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns his senior year. But Mitchell moved to wide receiver when he came to EIU.
So after three seasons of learning to be wide receiver, Mitchell was a bit hesitant to switch to defensive back. Dameron convinced Mitchell he had the skill set to make the move and Mitchell eventually made the switch.
The move has paid off. In his first season as a defensive back, Mitchell appeared in all 11 games and made 32 tackles. In the final game of the season against Eastern Kentucky, he had an interception and two pass breakups.
Three games into the season, Mitchell is only three tackles away from matching last year's total. The senior defensive back leads the Panthers with 29 tackles. So the move has worked out well it seems.
"They were going to move me to defense and I was kinda like 'oh man,'" Mitchell said. "But I like the move and I'm happy to help my team any way I can. Luckily I've been able to do so. I am excited about the move and happy about it. Maybe I should've made the move earlier in my career. But I am happy with the move and I can't complain about that."
Dameron thinks Mitchell has taken to the position change well and that the switch wasn't an easy one.
"It's huge, you go from running forward to running backward. Go from catching it to stripping people and all that," Dameron said. "It's a physical position and it's one where there's a lot of intricacies. Here, in our coverage package and our defense overall, there's a lot to learn and he got better and better last year and started to make some plays. This year he's had three pretty good days."
It was quite the adjustment though for the former high school running back turned wide receiver. For once, he wouldn't have the ball in his hands and had to stop the person who had the ball. The adjustment didn't take long, though, Mitchell said.
"On defense, I would love to see the ball more. It was mostly going from not trying to be tackled to being tackled," Mitchell said. "I played corner in high school, but it wasn't as in depth in my high school. It was mostly 'here's your guy.' We actually have plays and zones now. It didn't take long to adjust. Most of it is a mindset for me. You just have to be willing to hit somebody."
The kinesiology major learned a lot from studying his own teammates, specifically defensive back Pono Choy, who graduated last year. Choy finished with 58 tackles last season and broke up two passes.
"My teammates are very excepting and the older guys brought me in and helped me out a lot," Mitchell said. "Pono, it was just the defensive scheme and football awareness that he had and he knew the game and was really smart about it."
Even though Mitchell played in all 11 games last season, he knew his role would expand this season. Now that he had a season of playing defensive back under his belt, he wanted to expand his game in the offseason.
"Since I am a senior, I wanted to try and be a leader on the team," Mitchell said. "It's not just what my job is on defense, but find out what everyone else is doing. I'm trying to help the younger guys on the team because they've had to step up. That was my whole focus, not just learning my job and responsibilities."
Mitchell moved to the STAR position this season, too, which Dameron described as a nickel safety.
"He's a cover guy but yet he also has to fit back into the box and cover tight ends," Dameron said. "We ask him to do a lot and it gives our defense the ability to put three safeties on the field and stay in that personnel no matter how many wide receivers are on the field. He's smart, he's physical, he can run. We found a spot for him that suits him well."
Mitchell enjoys the physical position and all of the responsibilities that come with it.
"It's an important part of the defense and I have to be able to fit in runs and also drop back in coverage. I have to know the safety positions from rover to free safety," Mitchell said. "I enjoy the position. I don't take it lightly. I am glad to have the coaches I have and I'm glad they put the trust in me and saw something in me that I didn't see. I am glad they gave me this opportunity."