UConn linebacker Jackson Mitchell never thought he’d be on a bowl-eligible team, but on Saturday, the Huskies narrowly defeated No. 19 Liberty 36-33, becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2015. With two minutes left in the first quarter, he scooped up a fumble by Liberty’s Kaidon Salter and ran 31 yards for his first career touchdown, giving the Huskies the 14-3 lead. Later on in the game, he also took down receiver Malik Caper on fourth-and-one at the Flames 41 yard line. This turnover on downs in the fourth quarter set up freshman quarterback Zion Turner for the game-winning touchdown just six plays later.
Experiencing the fans storming the field after the big win was something he had dreamed of since he was a kid. Mitchell is happy to be a part of the team rebuilding UConn’s football program and instilling pride in fans.
“Coach [Jim] Mora made a statement that we were gonna get the seniors to become bowl eligible before they left here, so it was kind of our plan and we kind of went through with it. We put in a lot of hard work towards it, so it definitely feels good,” Mitchell said in an interview Wednesday.
The junior from Ridgefield, Connecticut is ranked second in the nation for overall total tackles, with 117 and ninth for tackles per game with 10.8. This season he has made 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and one interception. Mitchell was named the Week 9 recipient of the New England Football Writers Association Gold Helmet Awards and was nominated as one of 15 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, a highly prestigious award honoring the nation’s best high school, college and professional linebackers.
Nicknamed the “heart and soul” of the football team and “Mr. Connecticut,” Mitchell’s impact on the team extends beyond tackles. Initially a shy player, he has grown to be a leader of the defense. Mitchell motivates the team with energy and intensity. In an interview, Turner said, “He’s always talking to us, giving us a little food for your brain, just telling us to lock in basically and always leading us in the right direction.”
Mitchell has led the Huskies defense since 2019, when he finished third in the nation among true freshmen with 65 total tackles. However, after losing 22 out of 24 games in his first two seasons and missing out on the 2020 season due to COVID-19, Mitchell considered transferring.
It was Coach Mora’s vision for the program that convinced him to stay.
“I didn’t want someone coming in here with no plan and just winging it, but he definitely had a plan and you saw that take place throughout the spring, like getting the fans and the community back into UConn football and having the spring game on campus,” Mitchell stated.
The Huskies are 6-5 under Mora, far better than their paltry 1-11 record in 2021. Mitchell attributes the improvement in the team to more demanding, game-like practices with each player putting in more effort overall.
“Our players have done a good job so far of putting the previous game behind them and moving on to the next one pretty quickly, and I expect they’ll do the same thing with this one,” Mora said earlier in the season.
The defensive star consistently tries to lead by example through greater physicality during drills and lifting on off days. He wants to inspire younger players to work harder and be just as dedicated.
Mitchell’s strong work ethic is evident off the field as well. He spends time studying the mental aspect of the game.
“I start watching film on Sunday night after we’ve talked about the previous game and then just every day watching a little bit more film and trying to find the intricacies of the opposing team’s offense,” Mitchell said.
After UConn, Mitchell hopes to be drafted into the NFL. His goal is to play football for as long as he can before finding a job he loves equally as much.