When Tray Mitchell first made the switch to the defensive side of the ball for Eastern Illinois, he admitted he was a fish out of water.
“It was a pretty big learning experience,” said Mitchell, a redshirt senior from Wentzville, Mo. “I played both ways in high school. When I played cornerback, it wasn’t that complex. It was, ‘Hey, you got that guy.’”
After three years at wide receiver, including a redshirt season, Mitchell found a home at safety in the spring of 2015. Last season, he played in 11 games, making 32 tackles.
This season, he has started every game in EIU’s defense at the star position, a safety who works in pass coverage and is versatile enough to help out against the run. As a first-year starter, he is third on the team with 49 tackles and six tackles for loss. His versatility has shown with five pass breakups, two sacks and two forced fumbles.
“I like the contact and the physical part of football, so that wasn’t really a huge transition,” he said. “It was more mental. Most of it was just learning the plays and the overall defense. Luckily, I had coaches, along with teammates that were older who’ve been in the defense for a while.”
Mitchell leaned on veteran EIU safeties Bradley Dewberry and Vincent Speller, along with last year’s starter at star, the now graduated Pono Choy, to aid his transition. On the field, he has relied on his outstanding speed to make plays.
“My speed definitely helps in coverage, but it also helps if I need to come down in a hurry (to play the run),” Mitchell said.
In this season’s opener at Indiana State, a 22-20 victory, Mitchell stuffed the stat sheet with a team-high 11 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, a pass breakup, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
“After that game, I thought, ‘I can do this,’” he said.
Mitchell and the Panthers (5-3) will be tested against the run today in a key Ohio Valley Conference game at UT Martin (3-4).
Junior running back Ladarius Galloway, a junior college transfer, leads the OVC with 95.7 rushing yards a game.
The Panthers suffered their first OVC loss of the season last weekend against No. 3 Jacksonville State. They are currently tied for second in the league with Austin Peay at 4-1.
With three games remaining, the Panthers are treating each week as a way to keep their FCS postseason hopes alive.
“Our mindset is now we treat every game like a playoff game,” Mitchell said. “(The playoffs) are definitely in the back of our minds, but we’re taking it as a week by week season. We want to be 1-0 each week.”
Eastern Illinois (5-3, 4-1 Ohio Valley Conference) at Tennessee-Martin (3-4, 1-3), 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28 at Martin, Tenn.
Three key matchups
- EIU defense vs. Third down: The Panthers have the third-best defense in the OVC on third down (34.6 percent). Martin, however, is the third-most successful offense on third down at 38.8 percent.
- Martin RB Ladarius Galloway vs. EIU defense: Galloway, a junior college transfer in his first season at Martin, is leading the OVC with 95.7 rush yards a game.
- Quarterbacks vs. Turnovers: EIU starter Bud Martin has thrown four interceptions in three games. UT Martin starter Troy Cook has thrown six picks in seven games. The QB who makes the fewest mistakes will help his team.
Senior linebacker Nick Horne needs five tackles for loss in the team’s final three games to move into the top 10 all time in the category in EIU history. He currently has 27 TFLs for his career.