Steelers DL Coach John Mitchell Talks Differences Between Coaching In College And NFL

Making the transition from college to the pros is rarely a smooth one after players are drafted. That goes for the players as well as their coaches. And perhaps nobody knows that better than Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, who spent 17 seasons coaching college players, and is entering his 25th season coaching in the NFL.

Mitchell, a lineman at Alabama before joining the Crimson Tide’s staff as the defensive ends coach the very year after his playing days at the university ended, knows quite a bit about how things work on both sides of the fence.

When the Steelers selected defensive end L.T. Walton in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Mitchell used much of the opportunity to talk about what it’s like for a player in college in terms of expectations and how that changes when they move up to the professional ranks, as well as the glaring differences between the two.

It all started when he was asked about Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers’ second-round draft pick in 2014, who played the entirety of his rookie season as a 20-year old after coming out of college as a junior. Tuitt was “a senior in college”, according to Mitchell, talking about the expectation of seeing the mistakes that he made and the learning curve that he faced.

But that just proved to be the tip of the iceberg.

Mitchell called upon his decades of coaching experience at both the college and professional level to talk about the differences between the two. College coaches, he says “user their players knowing that they may have them for three years so whatever he can do, they let him do it”.

College coaches don’t have longevity on their mind, which is both a luxury and a burden. When thinking about the long-term, a coach has to consider who to best serve that player for a long period of time, and how he can best serve the team.

That goes into a lot of detail about breaking down a player’s game and teaching him the right techniques, rounding out his game to assure that he is a complete player. Not so in college, where coaches don’t feel the responsibility of rounding out their players, instead utilizing their natural assets.

This is the raw clay that position coaches like Mitchell have to deal with when they draft a player. “When they get to this next level”, he says, “there are a lot of things that they never heard of. Technique, nutrition, to lift weights and stay in shape, this is a long-term deal and they have to adjust to that”.

Mitchell in particular is a stickler for technique, and it often takes a long time before he trusts a young player enough to give him a significant amount of playing time, which makes Tuitt a bit of an outlier after entering the starting lineup during the final quarter of the season last year. The veteran position coach has a great deal more to say on the subject, which is a discussion that will be continued tomorrow.

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