Big Switch

Kawika Mitchell Photo: AP/Bill Kostroun

Kawika Mitchell couldn't concern himself with the daunting assignment.

As a frustrating free agency period proceeded, the linebacker began to feel like unemployment was a dilemma he might encounter later in 2007. He was Kansas City's starting middle linebacker in 2006, but a free fall out of the league wasn't unrealistic, at least in Mitchell's mind. The Chiefs chose him in the second round out of South Florida in 2003, but he always approached his profession as if he was an undrafted free agent, one missed tackle or injury away from being out of work.

And as Brandon Short, the Giants' starting weak side linebacker for most of 2006, has harshly learned this year, NFL employment is never guaranteed.

So after four years in Kansas City, Mitchell happily signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Giants on March 27, which essentially amounts to a 16-game audition to determine if has a prolonged future with the organization.

With Antonio Pierce entrenched as the Giants' starting middle linebacker, signing with the Giants meant Mitchell had to move to weak side linebacker, a position he hadn't played at the NFL level. Mitchell admits he didn't know how difficult the move might be, but he also knew he didn't have much choice but to try.

The conversion from the middle to the weak side, a switch perceived to be difficult because it requires seemingly slower players to operate more in open spaces, has been surprisingly easy.

"I definitely feel really comfortable playing the position," Mitchell said. "Surprisingly, coming in, it wasn't that hard of a transition. You know, then on the flip side of it, playing that position in the games, it's been a little different. But again, I feel comfortable and confident playing it."

Mitchell's confidence increased significantly following the Giants' come-from-behind road victory over Washington on Sept. 23. He beat Redskins running back Ladell Betts to the goal line, wrapped him up and forced the ensuing game-deciding, fourth-and-goal play from the Giants' 1-yard line with less than a minute to play in the game. The outcome-changing play typified what Mitchell was always certain he could provide for Steve Spagnuolo's defense, even when it might've looked like he was struggling at an unfamiliar position during the Giants' two season-opening losses.

"You always want that opportunity," Mitchell said. "It's just like having the ball in your hand (at the end of a game) when you're a basketball player. But it was my job to do it, and I just did it. And again, if it was anybody else, hopefully they would've done the same. Thankfully, it was my turn, and I did it."

Mitchell's teammates were impressed by him much earlier than the game against Washington, though.

Reggie Torbor, the Giants' backup strong side linebacker, figured sliding from the middle to the weak side would be much more challenging than bouncing between the strong side and weak side. But Mitchell made it look relatively easy.

"You could tell right away, mentally, he was into it," Torbor said. "He would catch on to schemes real quick, almost instantly, as soon as they were installed. He just goes out, works hard. He kind of got banged up a little bit earlier in the season, but he didn't stop. He didn't complain, just went out there and practiced every day. He never whined, never complained, never wanted to take a play off. To me, that means a lot because if you can suck it up in practice, it's easy to suck it up in the game and go. So he's definitely someone you want in your linebacking corps and on your team."

Mitchell, meanwhile, hopes his stay in East Rutherford lasts longer than one season. Though Pierce isn't going anywhere, the Winter Springs, Fla., native has thoroughly enjoyed playing on the weak side, especially since it helps him feel fresher physically because he doesn't absorb as many hits as he did during his time as a middle linebacker.

"My leg has been feeling a little funny lately, but I do notice a little bit of a difference (on Monday mornings)," a smiling Mitchell said. "You still get beat up, though, especially with how big those guys are and how they move."

Mitchell's new position is less stressful mentally as well.

"Sometimes in the middle you've got people on the outside bringing the ball back to you, or covering up for you sometimes," Mitchell said. "But it's definitely easier than playing the middle, because in the middle you have all the responsibilities. You make all the calls and all that stuff, so I've found that everything about it has been a little bit easier."

The 6-1, 253-pound Mitchell also finds it easier to talk trash in the Giants' locker room these days. Amid Michigan and Notre Dame alums, he is enjoying himself because South Florida has cracked The Associated Press' Top 25 this season, while becoming one of the Big East's elite teams. It was a Division I-AA school when he was recruited to play there in the late 1990s.

"Everybody wants South Florida to fall," Mitchell said. "So I've got some legitimate bets on the side. I'll take them all. I've got a lot of confidence in South Florida and what we can do … I always had the confidence that that's where we were heading. And we've got the facilities and the athletes, so I'm not really surprised by it.

"It's nice to be part of it, though. I still see my name in some of the record books and things like that, and the coaches show a lot of love and stuff like that. So it's still like a pretty tight family down there. We've been good for a little while. But we're beating some good teams and we're in a good conference, so we're getting some more recognition now."

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