At points throughout the 2013 season, the Hokies were dangerously thin on the offensive line. Against Alabama, Virginia Tech only dressed six offensive linemen with any collegiate game experience, along with true freshman Jonathan McLaughlin. Depth improved with the return of Mark Shuman, and the transition of Alston Smith and Wyatt Teller from defensive to offensive line. However, the Hokies never needed to test those new guys when the game was on the line as none of the starters suffered an injuries serious enough to miss a game.
Still, Coach Jeff Grimes had a vision for the future, and that future focused on long, athletic, zone blocking offensive linemen with great feet and reach. One of Grimes early targets was talented 6-4, 280 pound New Jersey lineman Billy Ray Mitchell. Mitchell is a lean, mobile offensive lineman with great short range punch. He gets extension and runs through defenders. He has tremendous upper body strength that he uses to finish blocks in an intimidating fashion. Much like Wyatt Teller, he plays right up to the whistle and intimidates would be defenders with an aggressive approach. He also has room to grow. I will be interested in how much he actually weighs, as he looks like a lean, athletic almost 18-year-old kid. In pictures, he appears to be closer to 260 pounds than 280, but he has plenty of room to grow on his frame.
At the time of his commitment, Mitchell projected to be a right tackle for Virginia Tech. But, during his senior season he spent time at center, right guard, and right tackle. With David Wang and Matt Arkema both graduating after next season, Mitchell could potentially factor in to the battle for the next Hokie starting center.
Let's take a look at the film. Most of Mitchell's senior season was spent at right guard. I love his punch and extension to go with his mobility. Here, Mitchell is uncovered in a pass pro situation.
Mitchell takes a bucket step to the outside to take any blitz that comes through his outside gap. He quickly identifies that there is no blitz and turns back to the inside. Without getting overextended, he delivers a vicious two handed bench press punch to the nose tackle, who is working over to Mitchell off the center. The nose tackle goes flying, and Mitchell turns back to the outside to confirm that there is no blitz threat. This is textbook guard play for pass pro against an odd front.
Also, for a zone blocking scheme to be effective against an odd front, the back side guard must be able to reach block a good nose tackle, and against an even front, he must be able to chip a defensive tackle and then get to the second level on the linebacker. Getting a body on the linebacker allows the running back to cut off his block on a stretch play. Here, Mitchell is at right guard and his school runs a zone stretch play.
Mitchell has to zone step to his left. He secures his gap with a punch on the inside shoulder of the defensive tackle while moving away from the defender. This allows the right tackle to complete the scoop block on the three-technique defensive tackle. Mitchell releases the down lineman and runs to the play side until he is in within reach of the safety. He pushes the safety into the sideline, and the back cuts off the block for a big run. This is beautiful back side blocking on a zone stretch play.
Blocking on the back side of the stretch requires terrific speed, technique, and effort. On the play side, the guard must get his head to the play side of the defender and then have the strength and footwork to seal him inside or run him laterally into the sideline. Here, the defensive tackle wins initially, but Mitchell's strength, footwork, and effort turns an initial problem into a successful block.
At the snap, Mitchell takes a solid first step, but the tackle quickly crosses his face and widens out. Mitchell recovers and turns him out then runs him right out of the picture.
Mitchell showed the same ability while taking snaps at center. First, against even fronts, the center has to pick up dog blitzes right up the middle and support both guards against the defensive tackle. Again, even with the added responsibility of snapping, Mitchell is quick to move side to side and help both of his teammates.
Mitchell also retains his quickness and strength at the center position. Here, Mitchell is facing a gargantuan defensive tackle who is aligned over the right guard. Mitchell has to get his head on the outside of the tackle and turn him back on the inside.
While this tackle isn't exactly John Randle, he is a huge guy and by alignment he has an advantage over Mitchell. Mitchell reaches him easily without needing a chip block from his guard on the play side. The guard is then freed up to go reach the linebacker.
Finally, Mitchell isn't just a finesse blocker. He has tremendous leg drive. While I have no way to confirm this, his experiment at center seemed to start when his coaches moved him to center on short yardage plays. Several highlights have Mitchell lined up at center on short yardage situations because his leg drive is outstanding. Here, his teams runs a quarterback sneak.
With offensive linemen, you can't teach reach, athleticism, and explosiveness. But, most importantly, you have to find offensive linemen who continue to move their feet at contact. For me, the biggest red flag I can see in scouting a player is to watch his feet at contact. If you see a blocker who stops their feet to brace themselves, that is a guy that I am going to worry about being effective at the next level. As you can see on this play, Mitchell snaps the ball and keeps his feet chopping hard right through contact, just like he was driving the old Rogers sled on the practice field.
Throughout his film, Mitchell continues to impress with his attitude and effort. The Hokies have some good potential young depth at guard with Alston Smith, Augie Conte, and Colt Pettit for Mitchell to compete with. But, at center, there are no young players in line after the 2014 season other than Eric Gallo. Gallo could potentially be a solid lineman, but he will take some time to develop. Mitchell could be perfectly positioned to be the starting Virginia Tech center in time for the Labor Day showdown against Ohio State in Lane Stadium in 2015.
Watch Billy Ray Mitchell's full highlights below.