Skyline duo rises for Texas
By Chip Brown / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN - As teammates at Skyline High School, Montrell Flowers would make fun of Hodges Mitchell for just about everything - his full name (Hodges George Mitchell II), his sloping forehead, the way he stayed home all the time watching television.
"I had to talk bad about him to get him going," Flowers said. "I saw him trying to run through people, and knew that wasn't his style. I told him to be like he was in high school."
Flowers would need some propping up of his own. Coming into the season, the speedy sophomore was plagued by a reputation for running poor routes, not going after the ball aggressively and failing to make the tough catches.
But both of these two players, Mitchell in particular, have managed to turn their seasons around. And they've helped an offense that lost seven starters from last season, including Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, become among the best in the nation.
Mitchell wouldn't fully get Flowers' message until after the Longhorns' victory at Rutgers on Sept. 11, when offensive coordinator Greg Davis told Mitchell to sit next to him on the plane.
At that point, Mitchell had 103 yards on 37 carries - a 2.78-yard average after three games. He had been outrushed in each game by either Victor Ike, Chris Robertson of Denison or Ricky Brown of Arlington.
"We're about to make a change," Davis told Mitchell as the darkness of night settled through the airplane. "We're getting to the point where we have to have more production."
Mitchell had already been pushed into a corner. Everywhere he turned, he heard how he didn't have a fraction of Ricky Williams' talent. How Ike was faster and Robertson more powerful.
Defensive end Cedric Woodard would jokingly say to him after each of the first three games, "You're only going to rush for 300 yards this season."
But Davis' comments pushed Mitchell as far into the corner as he could go. One more game averaging 34.3 yards and Mitchell feared he would never be heard from again on a football field.
"I saw myself sitting on the bench for the next two years, and I didn't want that to happen," he said.
After two years of watching Ricky Williams, Mitchell had tried to be like the Heisman winner, adding weight and running like a bull instead of a bug because he thought that was what college football was all about - plowing over people.
But at 5-7, 187 pounds, Mitchell was building a highlight reel more notable for the car-accident-type hits he was suffering than anything else.
"We talked about taking him to an eye doctor. We thought he couldn't see," Davis said. "It seemed like he had a target on his chest that said, 'Insert Helmet Here.' "
Flowers knew that if Mitchell returned to the catch-me-if-you-can spin moves and cutbacks he used in high school, his buddy would be a success. Mitchell knew it, too. The coaches were telling him to go back to what he was good at.
They made Mitchell participate in hitting drills the week of the Rice game on Sept. 18, something unheard of at Texas for the starter once the season begins.
They wanted Mitchell to focus on breaking tackles. They also emphasized a drill in which the running backs plant their outside foot and push off in the other direction to help with elusiveness.
They moved Mitchell back from seven yards to eight yards in the backfield because they thought he was getting to holes too quickly, seeing nothing there, then trying to make something happen on his own, usually for negative yardage.
They told him to trust the offensive line to open the hole the play called for, then use his quickness and cutback skills to avoid tacklers once through the hole. They didn't like him trying to copy Williams by powering straight ahead into a speeding linebacker.
After the Rutgers game, he finally got the message.
Mitchell ran 21 times for 188 yards against Rice, and since then he's been held under 100 yards only twice. One of those games - against Kansas State - saw him carry only 11 times for 45 yards. Davis later lamented not giving Mitchell more carries to keep the K-State defense from teeing off on quarterback Major Applewhite.
Mitchell, whose nickname is "Super" because he was born on Super Bowl Sunday, has fumbled only once in 248 carries and has gone 132 straight rushes since that lone bobble. His highlight reel is now filled with cutback touchdown runs, such as the Barry Sanders-vintage scats against Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. And he is the only back in Division I-A to top 1,300 yards rushing (1,329) and 300 yards receiving (343).
"He may have come as far from start to finish as any player I've ever coached," UT coach Mack Brown said. "The production in our running game with Hodges has been the difference in the success of our offense this year."
For Mitchell, a soccer player most of his life, there is now satisfaction in knowing that he has successfully replaced Williams with one more year to play and maybe even surpassed his father, Hodges I.
His dad, a teammate and road-game roommate of Mack Brown's at Florida State, was the leading rusher for the Seminoles in 1972 and '73. But he never rushed for more than 944 yards in a season.
"I surprised a whole lot of people," the younger Hodges said. "I'm probably the best-kept secret in college football. I don't think a whole lot of people expected me to play the way I'm playing. I think people expected me to flop."
Flowers is still proving himself. After dropping three passes in UT's loss to Texas A&M last week, he said, "I need to start over from scratch."
But Flowers has shown he can make the big play. After catching a few balls for unspectacular numbers in four of UT's first six games, and after going without a single catch against Rice or Kansas State, Flowers finally broke through when it mattered.
He caught four passes for 111 yards in UT's come-from-behind victory over Oklahoma, including a 27-yard pass on third-and-20 on the Longhorns' go-ahead touchdown drive.
Flowers also snared a deep pass over the middle for 35 yards on third-and-15 on UT's final scoring drive against OU.
He had two-touchdown games against Iowa State and Texas Tech, again coming up with the goods in clutch situations against the Cyclones.
"On third-and-long, I want to be the man," Flowers said.
Applewhite now believes in Flowers, just as UT fans and coaches who first doubted Mitchell now believe in Flowers' high school buddy.
"Montrell's routes are so much better," Applewhite said. "At the beginning of the season, I wouldn't even look to him on a corner route. Now, it's a route I like to throw his way."