WINCHESTER -- Starting in the defensive backfield for Shenandoah University's football team is nothing new to senior Byron Mitchell.
Mitchell, who worked himself into a starting role at safety for the Hornets during his freshman season and has been a mainstay there since, knows what it takes to be a successful defender. Mitchell has made a name for himself, earning all-conference honors the last two seasons and helping to lead a squad that finished near the top of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in total defense last year.
But with a new head coach bringing in a new defensive scheme and a new philosophy, Mitchell suddenly finds himself in untested waters.
First year head coach Scott Yoder, who is also serving as Shenandoah's defensive coordinator this season, has brought with him the 4-4 defensive scheme that he found success with in his six seasons as defensive coordinator at Hobart College (N.Y.).
Under Yoder's system, the free safety is the primary signal caller, the quarterback of the defense. Mitchell has been handed that responsibility, and the 5-foot-9, 190-pound Virginia Beach native faces the tough challenge of directing a defense that he is still in the process of learning.
"It has been a lot of pressure so far ... this is a whole new role that I'm taking on. I've never been the quarterback of the defense. I've made checks, but I've never made the right-left call, making sure people are lined up in the right place," Mitchell said. "It's a whole new role, but I think it's a role I can embrace and I feel like it was meant for me. I'm sad to say that I only have a year to do it and I have a short time to learn it, but I think that I'm meant for this role."
Mitchell and the rest of his defensive teammates have been working on learning the ins and outs of the 4-4 defense since spring practice, but the Hornets hadn't been able to practice the new scheme at full speed and in pads until early last week.
Mitchell said learning the scheme began as a slow process with everyone trying to take in the new playbook, but he has been encouraged by the progress of he and the rest of Shenandoah's defense over the last week.
"I'm definitely getting comfortable ... with every mistake I've made and each day that's passed, it has gotten better each day and it still is," Mitchell said. "Each day is a stepping stone for me getting better and being the quarterback of this defense."
Mitchell's leadership is going to be of the utmost importance to the Hornets' defensive success this season, and Mitchell admits that one wrong decision on his end during a game could "screw everything up."
But he isn't backing down from this latest challenge, as he knows and accepts his job as leader, role model and mentor to the younger players on the team.
Mitchell, who was a second team all-ODAC selection last season, was voted as one of four team captains for the 2013 season by his teammates, and he said he wants to make it his goal this season to prove to his teammates that they chose the right man.
"I think this year being named a captain, it's really hit me now. You're a leader now," said Mitchell, who recorded 61 tackles and three interceptions last season. "I've always had that leadership mentality since my freshman year, but just being named a captain -- which is the biggest honor that I've ever had in my college career -- I think it's just given me a label of 'Byron Mitchell is that guy that the freshmen need to replicate, these freshmen need to look to.'"
Mitchell's appointment as a team captain was a no-brainer for Yoder, who said Mitchell was the first player to call him when Yoder was named the new head coach back in January. Yoder said Mitchell's initiative set the tone for what the Shenandoah football program hopes to be about, and that has spilled over into the players surrounding Mitchell.
"The guys look up to him and he understands what we're trying to do," Yoder said. "That's probably the biggest battle you face when you're coming in new to a program, is that with a new staff and new expectations, you're going to do things a little bit differently. You need the upperclassmen -- if they jump in with it, then the younger guys are going to fall in line, and I think Byron is a big part of that. His leadership is about as good as I've seen in 13 years."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com