Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell (26) will be playing both ways for the Bulldogs this season.
ATHENS — Malcolm Mitchell doesn’t lack confidence that he can star at receiver and cornerback for Georgia.
Just a few days into spring practice, Mitchell is getting more comfortable in his temporary switch to cornerback despite a considerable language barrier of sorts.
“Terrible,” Mitchell said with a smile Wednesday night about how is was going in picking up the defensive signals. “I didn’t know what they were saying. It sounded like a different language. They were using words I’ve never heard before.”
The Bulldogs believe the rising sophomore will figure out his new responsibilities soon enough.
“This spring, (Mitchell is) going to work almost exclusively on defense,” coach Mark Richt said.
Richt then added: “He may run a route once in a while, but the goal for him is to be as proficient as a cornerback as he can be and to have enough of a working knowledge, so that when we start in camp, he’ll have a pretty good feel for the position.”
Mitchell was recruited as an “athlete” after excelling on offense and defense at Valdosta High School in 2009-10. He played exclusively at receiver last year, finishing second in catches and yards receiving despite a hamstring injury that forced him to miss three games.
Richt decided last week that Mitchell, who started nine games at split end, would work exclusively in the secondary during Georgia’s 14 spring sessions. Mitchell spoke publicly late last season about wanting to try cornerback this year.
“He’s a very talented football player,” Richt said. “We all know he’s an outstanding receiver, but he’s got some tremendous skills as a defensive back as well. Our goal is for him to be able to help us on both sides of the ball.”
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 19 after ending the season with a blowout loss to LSU in the Southeastern Conference title game and a triple-overtime setback to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, have plenty of depth at receiver.
That’s not the case at cornerback, though Richt insisted last week that Mitchell’s move was not caused by the offseason arrests of cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith.
Commings pleaded guilty Tuesday in Clarke County State Court to misdemeanor charges of simple battery and disorderly conduct. He received 12 months of probation, a $200 fine, 40 hours of community service and an order to attend anger management and substance abuse classes.
Commings, whom Richt suspended for the Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo and the Sept. 8 game at Missouri, also will be subject to random alcohol and drug tests by the state of Georgia.
Richt has yet to decide a punishment for Smith, who was arrested March 11 in Abbeville, Ala., on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.
“Early on, we’re going to have to have help (Mitchell) at corner,” Richt said. “Then once Sanders comes back into the fold, the time he spends on offense may increase, but he’s going to have to be ready to play a full game at defensive back through the second game, and then we’ll see.”
Another reason Georgia wants to try Mitchell at cornerback is the departure of Brandon Boykin, who’s on track to graduate after finishing second in tackles for lost yardage, third in interceptions and fifth in solo stops.
Boykin was a threat on offense and special teams, too, piling up 1,029 all-purpose yards.
Mitchell hopes he can follow in Boykin’s path, but first he must master the defense.
“Just coming in these first two days opened my eyes to how much work is really going to have to be put in to do what I want to do,” he said. “Honestly, as far as me playing, I really don’t care. It could be offense. It could be defense — whichever one I play full-time or part-time. I know coming in I want to play both regardless of how it’s worked out.”
Richt dismissed defensive backs Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders on Feb. 3 for breaking undisclosed team rules. Georgia also lost Derek Owens and Jakar Hamilton when both players transferred during last season.
Mitchell knows his adjustments will take lots of film study, preparation and proper technique. Just because he mastered cornerback in high school doesn’t mean he can do the same in the SEC.
“It’s a lot more difficult than playing at high school with guys that didn’t have the same ability I had,” Mitchell said. “I could get out there and play around and still do good on defense and the same way for offense. Now I have to actually learn everything and get it down.”