The future will line up opposite Aaron Mitchell on Sunday, staring him right in the facemask.
It’ll take the human form of 6-foot-3, 290-pound Ed Oliver, Houston’s All-American, nearly-impossible-to-block defensive tackle.
Like most college football players, Mitchell has aspirations of an NFL career once his time at Fresno State comes to an end at the conclusion of the Hawaii Bowl.
For the senior center, there can be no better résumé-builder than to hold his own against the guy who won the Outland Trophy as a sophomore, projects as a top-10 NFL draft pick as soon as he’s eligible and whom Fresno State offensive line coach Ryan Grubb calls “the best guy I’ve seen on film.”
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Yet Mitchell insists he’s not approaching his final college game that way.
“It’s just another game, honestly,” Mitchell said. “You can’t look at it like, ‘Oh, this is who I’m going against, so it’s a big opportunity.’ Every game is an opportunity, no matter who you’re going against. ...
“Besides, I’m not just going against (Oliver). There are five of us.”
While that’s technically true, Mitchell will need to be at his best for Fresno State to muster much offense against Houston.
While listed as a tackle, Oliver lines up as a nose guard in the Cougars’ 3-4 scheme. Meaning he and Mitchell will bang helmets just about every snap.
Grubb and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer certainly don’t want Mitchell blocking Oliver one-on-one. That would be an exercise in foolishness. Guards Netane Muti and Micah St. Andrew will be there to lend a 300-pound body.
But Oliver will be Mitchell’s primary responsibility – in addition to calling the protections and snapping the ball.
“Aaron’s going to have to find a couple things out of (Oliver’s) stance that might clue him into something, but there’s not much,” Grubb said. “He plays you pretty straight up. Aaron will need a mindset that he’s going to have to have his best game. And it’s such a critical point of attack.”
The last part can’t be emphasized enough. If a defense has a stud outside linebacker, the offense can simply run away from him. A stud cornerback can be somewhat negated since the offense can pass to the opposite side.
There’s no escaping – or avoiding – a stud in the middle of the defensive line. He can affect every single play.
That’s what Oliver has done since his first career game (a 33-23 upset of Oklahoma in the 2016 opener) after signing with the Cougars as a five-star recruit. This season, despite constant double teams and an MCL injury, the Houston native piled up 14 1/2 tackles for losses, 5 1/2 sacks, seven quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.
“He’s just as good as everyone says he is,” Mitchell said. “Flies around with a great motor. Makes a lot of plays, like a good D-lineman should. Definitely the things that stick out are his get-off and his motor. He plays to the whistle and always wants to get to the ball.”
Providing some level of comfort for Grubb and DeBoer is the fact that Mitchell has faced some awfully good tackles: Washington’s Vita Vea, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne and, as a sophomore, Mississippi’s Robert Nkemdiche, drafted in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals.
He’s just as good as everyone says he is.
Fresno State center Aaron Mitchell, on Houston’s Ed Oliver
“I’ve played against a lot of big dudes, a lot of big names and a lot of guys who are going to have great careers after college football,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, too, wants that opportunity. A fourth-year senior (the previous coaching staff foolishly burned his redshirt year for a handful of snaps against Southern Utah), the All-Mountain West second-team selection has started 37 consecutive games at center and guard.
This year was undoubtedly Mitchell’s best. The San Diego native emerged as a team captain and leader of an offensive line that ranks fifth in the nation in sacks allowed and third in tackles for losses allowed.
To finish this remarkable turnaround season on a high, Fresno State needs to snap its six-game bowl losing streak, which puts a lot of pressure on Mitchell to prevent Oliver from wreaking havoc.
“That is what is awesome about Aaron Mitchell,” Grubb said. “I don’t know if he’d want it any other way for his last game as a Bulldog: ‘Put that weight on me and let’s see what happens.’ I’m fired up for it.”
Mitchell is fired up as well, though he’s absorbed enough of coach Jeff Tedford’s mantra to avoid placing too much emphasis on any single opponent or matchup.
“That’s what Coach Tedford has been preaching all year: It’s just another game,” Mitchell said. “Each week, gotta prepare the same way. Whether it’s for the best defensive lineman in the country or anyone else.”
37 consecutive starts for Bulldogs senior center Aaron Mitchell
Of course, this isn’t just another game. It’s the last time he’ll pull on a Bulldogs jersey before he spends the spring semester training for the NFL while trying to complete his degree in business administration.
Just don’t ask the 6-2, 305-pounder to reflect on his time at Fresno State. It’s still too soon for that.
“I’m excited to be done and become a fan and watch what this program is going to turn into, but I can’t think about that type of stuff right now,” Mitchell said. “I’ve got to prepare my five and prepare this offense to go out there and play a really good Houston defense.
“We can talk after Sunday. How’s that?”
Sounds good. The future will be here shortly.
FRESNO STATE VS. HOUSTON
Sunday, Dec. 24: 5:30 p.m. at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
Records: Bulldogs 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West; Cougars 7-4, 5-3 American Athletic
TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
Of note: The Bulldogs make a third trip to the Hawaii Bowl since 2012, having lost to Southern Methodist in 2012 and Rice in 2014. Houston is a bigger challenge. The Cougars opened with a road victory against a Power-5 team (Arizona). Houston has the Outland Trophy winner in defensive tackle Ed Oliver (14.5 tackles for loss; 5.5 sacks). A big-play offense is led by D’Eriq King, who in the past three games has completed 73 percent of his passes for 832 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt.