DEVOTED TO THE GAME: Back in Temple after one season each at Waco and Manor, Wildcats junior Naeten Mitchell has been a productive addition to Temple's defense this season. Splitting time between cornerback, "boom" safety and weak safety, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Mitchell is the Wildcats' third-leading tackler with 41 stops and leads them with two interceptions. He received a scholarship offer from Arkansas in May. Mitchell and District 12-6A leader Temple (6-2, 5-0) seek to clinch at least a share of the league championship when they play Killeen (2-6, 0-5) at 7:30 Friday at Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Whether it’s record-setting Harker Heights running back Re’Shaun Sanford II, fleet-footed Killeen Shoemaker quarterback Omari Evans or any other talented football player that Temple’s defense faces, there are tackles that simply need to be made.
From a defender’s perspective, bringing down a skilled, explosive player in the open field requires above-average physical ability and proper technique, to be sure.
But the way 5-foot-10, 170-pound Wildcats safety Naeten Mitchell views the task of tackling top-tier opponents who often are larger than the slender junior is, one ingredient rises to the top of the list.
“Really it’s a lot of heart. I feel like it’s really a big heart thing and mind thing. I don’t really care how big somebody is. I don’t care about anything like that. I’m going to come in and lay the boom when I have to,” said Mitchell, who has 41 tackles – third on the squad – and a team-leading two interceptions in his first season for District 12-6A leader Temple entering the Wildcats’ game against Killeen (2-6, 0-5) at 7:30 Friday night at Leo Buckley Stadium.
“There’s been a couple of tackles where I get my bell rung. I feel it. But like I said, it’s all heart. I don’t really care if I’m hurting.”
Competing against the likes of Sanford, Evans and numerous other talented athletes in 12-6A certainly is a challenge, and the confident Mitchell definitely is here for it.
“Nate’s willing to stick his face in there. A lot of times when you see missed tackles (from other players), you’re not seeing as much bad technique as you are that the commitment level just may not be at a 9 or a 10. His is at a 10.8,” Temple head coach Scott Stewart said about Mitchell, who in May received a scholarship offer from Arkansas.
“He has zero hesitation when it comes to sticking his face in there. He absolutely will. And he’ll get absolutely trucked and pop up and do it again. It might not end well, but he’s not going to back down. He’s a tough kid.”
The Wildcats’ defense features an assemblage of strong, mobile players who embrace the game’s physical nature, including the top two tacklers in junior linebacker Taurean York (92 tackles) and senior linebacker Faylin Lee (45 stops).
What makes Mitchell stand out to defensive coordinator Dexter Knox is his go-for-it style and a willingness to take on any and all ball carriers, seemingly without any regard for self-preservation.
“Nate just runs in there and throws his body around,” said Knox, who got seven tackles from Mitchell – three for losses – in Temple’s 60-15 shellacking of Shoemaker last Friday at Wildcat Stadium. “We made a little name for him last week. We started calling him ‘Missile Mitchell,’ from Nate being a missile all the time and coming off the roof and throwing himself in there. If Nate’s not on the ground, it’s not a football play.
“He’s got a little moxie, a little swag about him,” Knox added. “He’s thought about it. The thing is, he’s been playing varsity football since he was a freshman. He understands the game and studies the game. He reminds me of a defensive back (version of) Taurean. Nate’s going to go home and study the game, and rightfully so. His dad’s a really good coach.”
ALWAYS AROUND THE FOOTBALL: Temple junior safety Naeten Mitchell (4) combines with senior safety Kaleb Hill to tackle Killeen Shoemaker senior receiver Khamari Terrell as junior end Jaylon Jackson closes in during the first-place Wildcats' 60-15 homecoming victory last Friday at Wildcat Stadium. Mitchell had seven tackles overall and three for loss against the Grey Wolves, three weeks after he recorded 12 tackles and forced a fumble in Temple's 44-34 comeback win at home against Harker Heights. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Although Mitchell has excellent natural ability, he has honed his skills through the years with desire, discipline and a strong work ethic. Much of that can be attributed to growing up under the tutelage and presence of his father.
Jeremy Mitchell is a longtime football coach who coached safeties for Stewart before leaving in 2018 to become Waco’s defensive coordinator for then-Lions head coach Kwame Cavil, formerly Temple’s wide receivers coach. After one season at Manor in 2020 and a brief detour to start up his own business, he’s now coaching at Temple’s Lamar Middle School.
“When I was growing up, my dad coached at Texas State, Manor, multiple schools. I saw how kids played and I would always watch videos of everybody and how they would hit,” said Naeten Mitchell, who’s played weak safety, “boom” safety and cornerback this season. “My dad and I sit down and watch film and break down film every night. It’s a blessing to have my dad, too.”
Also the son of a longtime high school coach, Stewart realizes the influence Jeremy Mitchell has had in Naeten’s life. However, Temple’s sixth-year head coach said much of the manner in which the younger Mitchell conducts himself on the practice field and during games must come from within.
“Nate has more internal drive that most kids I’ve been around. If you come in the summer and (watch him) work out, he’s going to run as hard as he can, he’s going to lift as hard as he can and he’s going to study film as hard as he can,” Stewart said. “I don’t know if that comes from being a coach’s kid. I’m going to subscribe (to the theory) that it probably isn’t just because of that. I think it’s his predisposition.
“He’s got a commitment level that a lot of them (don’t have). If you come out here on Sundays, there’s a good chance he’ll be out there on that turf. He’s a workhorse, now. He and Taurean are very similar mentally.”
Mitchell moved to Temple before his sixth-grade year and became close friends with York and current Wildcats junior wide receiver/safety Mikal Harrison-Pilot at Travis Science Academy. Starring on both sides of the ball, that trio helped power the Mustangs’ football team to back-to-back undefeated seasons.
Said Stewart about Mitchell: “He was a small guy, but you could tell he was a good athlete. He’s one of those kids that’s longed out pretty good.”
But whereas Harrison-Pilot and York earned starting positions on defense for Temple’s varsity squad as freshmen in 2019, Mitchell moved on to Waco and joined his father with the Lions program. He played for the freshman and varsity teams before being promoted to varsity in late October.
Mitchell’s varsity debut, coincidentally, came at Wildcat Stadium in Temple’s 57-13 win over Waco. Filling in that night for injured senior starting quarterback Vance Willis, then-sophomore Samari Howard moved from running back to QB and ripped through the Lions’ defense for 163 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Now a three-year star, Howard is on the verge of becoming the all-time leading scorer in Temple program history, needing seven more points to surpass Lache Seastrunk’s career mark of 312.
“I actually played against Temple in my first game on varsity, so that was pretty cool. Samari was fast. I’m glad he’s on my side now,” Mitchell recalled. “It was crazy. That game it was freezing. Growing up with my dad coaching here and then being on the other side with another team . . . the atmosphere was insane. I had never felt it on the football field, just the lights and how big the stadium is. I don’t see any other 6A teams competing with this.”
Mitchell stayed in Waco for only one season, because he transferred to Manor in 2020 after his father became the Mustangs’ special teams coordinator and defensive line coach. Mitchell played both safety and receiver as a sophomore, earning all-district status after leading Manor with 47 tackles (26 unassisted) and making one interception for the 2-6 Mustangs.
Mitchell never had stopped reminding his father about how much he enjoyed playing in Temple, and Naeten’s journey took another turn after the 2020 football season when Jeremy decided to leave coaching and open T Town Energy & Nutrition, which serves shakes and tea, in downtown Temple along with his partner, Marquita Frank.
“I’d been telling him that I wanted to come back with my boys. How it all came together was pretty amazing,” said Naeten Mitchell, who turned 17 in early July. “He told me I could come back, and we had a meeting with Coach Stewart and I enrolled here (before the spring 2021 semester). Mikal and Taurean, I’ve known them pretty much my whole life. We’ve always been brothers and they just made everything welcoming. I already had friends here, so it was pretty cool.”
Mitchell made a smooth transition to Temple, jumping into its offseason football program, running hurdles in track and earning a starting position at third base for coach Dallas Robertson’s 18-12 Wildcats baseball team that fell one win short of reaching the playoffs.
“It was a pretty good season. I felt I could’ve hit a little bit better, but it was pretty steady,” said Mitchell, who also plays outfield, pitches and plays travel baseball during the summer.
A major moment in Mitchell’s life occurred one week after Temple’s baseball season ended May 1. He said he received a message from Arkansas graduate assistant defensive coach Kresean Reed that urged Mitchell to attend a USA Football camp May 8-9 in the Dallas area.
Mitchell was undecided initially, but a situation of “father knows best” helped him make what could prove to be a pivotal decision.
“I didn’t really feel like going because my legs were tired from baseball. But my dad told me, ‘I think we should go, because this is a big opportunity. He’s not going to invite you for no reason,’” Mitchell recalled. “So I was like, ‘OK, I’ll go.’”
It was a fortuitous decision. With Reed and Razorbacks cornerbacks coach Sam Carter in attendance, Mitchell put on a two-day performance that made the trip undoubtedly worthwhile.
“Coach Carter and Coach Reed were there, and I went out and had a great first day. I don’t know . . . my footwork was on point that day. It was a great day to have my footwork right,” Mitchell said. “The first day we did 1-on-1s and I believe I had three picks. Then the second day I had five picks, and that really opened (Carter’s) eyes.
“Before the second day he told me that I’m going to have to earn this offer before I got the offer. I believe I earned the offer, and he sent the offer the next day (May 10). It was awesome being able to have my dad there supporting me. It was a great time to go there and I’m glad I decided to go, for sure.”
What’s interesting is that 5½ months later, Arkansas – which competes in the Southeastern Conference, college football’s premier league – remains Mitchell’s only scholarship offer. He said Texas Christian, Colorado and Marshall are among the schools that are showing recruiting interest toward him.
“I’m just trying to get them to pull the trigger (on offering a scholarship). I’m trying to have a good year and trying to wake up a bunch of colleges. They need to wake up,” Mitchell said excitedly.
“Nate is just a fluid player, and he understands the game,” Knox said. “I think that’s what Arkansas saw. His hips are better than some of the best hips I’ve ever seen. Nate just naturally has loose hips and he’s able to change directions well. You’ve got to match (the athleticism of great athletes).”
Mitchell said it will take an outstanding opportunity to keep him from eventually committing to Arkansas and head coach Sam Pittman, whose team has beaten Texas and Texas A&M this seasonHe’s attended multiple Razorbacks games this season, and after Temple won 50-15 at rival Belton on Oct. 15, he and his family quickly loaded up and made the long drive throughout the night to arrive in Fayetteville hours before the Hogs’ 11 a.m. SEC game against Auburn.
“I was able to meet their coaches and the recruits they have already. It’s an amazing fit for me,” said Mitchell, who’s trying to add at least 10 to 15 pounds of good weight before he leaves to play in college. “They have kids my height right now who are playing the same positions as me, so it’s awesome to see that I can play there.
“I want to major in business when I go to college, and I know at Arkansas they have a big business program. I want to stay in that as I go through college.”
As it turned out, Jeremy Mitchell’s stint outside the coaching profession was short-lived. Stewart said that when Lamar Middle School had a coaching vacancy come up right before the start of this school year, Jeremy immediately indicated his interest in it – partially because his new business was doing well and that Frank, whom Naeten calls his “stepmom,” could take over more of the workload.
“Jeremy said, ‘Hey, I’ve kind of got this thing rolling and I just want to get my foot back in the door,’ so he’s coaching at Lamar,” Stewart said.
Added Naeten Mitchell about his father: “He couldn’t stay away from it for too long. He loves the game too much. Now my stepmom’s running the shop and he gets to do football, so he loves it.”
Defensive coordinator Knox has observed that Naeten Mitchell clearly is a product of his father’s steady, no-nonsense parenting.
“Nate obviously grew up a coach’s kid. Jeremy does not take anything lightly on him – his grades, being responsible, doing whatever he can in athletics, whether that’s football, baseball or running hurdles,” Knox said. “Jeremy stays on him and is always hard and supportive and making sure he’s accountable.
“It’s exactly the same with (Temple linebackers coach) Chris (Pilot) and Mikal. They run in the same circle quite a bit. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with this, and Nate understands that. If we’re not having to push that all the time, that’s half the battle. If you get it from home, too, that’s big-time. He gets it both ways.”
Mitchell takes not only his sports seriously but also his academics, maintaining a 3.6 grade-point average.
“I just like the competition, because you’ve always got to fight for grades and it’s not easy,” he said. “I like being able to compete with other kids around school and see where you line up.”
PLAYING WITH PASSION: Temple junior defensive back Naeten Mitchell celebrates after making an interception deep in Magnolia West territory a minute into the Wildcats' 27-14 home loss to the Mustangs. Mitchell's pick set up Reese Rumfield's touchdown pass to Devan Williams. Mitchell's second interception this season came in a 56-27 win at Killeen Ellison. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
After Temple was dominated 54-13 by top-ranked Austin Westlake in its season opener and Mitchell’s Wildcats debut, he began to make his mark a week later at home against Magnolia West. Playing cornerback, he darted in front of a receiver and made an interception a minute into the game deep in Mustangs territory. That set up a touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Reese Rumfield to senior receiver Devan Williams.
“I feel like my best coverage game was against Magnolia West. I played corner a lot and that’s what I was supposed to play when I came here,” Mitchell said. “But they moved me to safety when they saw I could hit."
In an interesting twist, Mitchell, Rumfield and Williams all enrolled at Temple during the spring 2021 semester, transferring in from Manor, Midlothian Heritage and Wichita Falls City View, respectively. Williams has attended and played for Temple as a sophomore.
Temple lost 27-14 to Magnolia West (8-0), but one week later Mitchell forced a fumble to set up a touchdown as the Wildcats broke through to beat Hutto 60-53 in their non-district finale.
“Nate’s always around the ball. He’s got good ball skills and some pretty good hands,” Stewart said. “He struggles with his eyes sometimes and likes to get greedy. The better the caliber of the quarterback, the less you can get away with that. Again, sometimes that instinct can lead to busted assignments if you’re not really particular about where you’re looking and how you’re doing it. I don’t want to take that away from him, but I also don’t want to cut people loose, either.”
Life threw another curveball at Mitchell after the Hutto game Sept. 10, in the form of a positive test for COVID-19.
“I started feeling sick after that game, then I stayed home Monday and got tested and it turned out (positive),” Mitchell said.
Temple had its open date before beginning 12-6A play Sept. 24 at Bryan, but COVID-19 timing protocols prevented him from returning to play in that game, a 49-7 Wildcats victory.
“It was a struggle, but I still got to go watch the team play and support them. It was pretty awesome,” Mitchell said, adding that the symptoms were not severe for him or his father, who also tested positive. “It wasn’t too bad. I was just really lightheaded pretty much. I stayed in contact with my coaches and they were always checking up on me, and my teammates as well, so that was awesome having them as family and making sure I was fine when I was sick.”
Mitchell was back in the starting lineup for Temple’s Oct. 1 home showdown with Harker Heights and the speedy, shifty Sanford, the prolific junior running back.
Two touchdown receptions by burly receiver Terrance Carter and Sanford’s 76-yard TD sprint propelled the Knights to a stunning 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, but Harrison-Pilot’s move to quarterback sparked the Wildcats’ offense and Mitchell and the defense finally found their footing.
“Everybody was telling me how last year we got down 20-0 in the first half and (Heights) wanted revenge because we came back and beat them. It was a very loud game, one of the loudest I’ve ever played. The atmosphere was amazing,” Mitchell said. “The first quarter was a little bit of a struggle, but I got back in the groove and it felt pretty normal.
“We stuck together the whole time. We came out pretty sluggish, but we just stayed together. Taurean and I were talking to each other at halftime that we were going to be fine. That’s what the coaches put into us. We practice on struggling, because we know we’re going to be down at some point.”
Playing Temple’s “boom” safety position, Mitchell made 12 tackles (seven solo) – tying York for the team lead – and caused a fumble as the Wildcats limited the Knights to 13 points in the final 2½ quarters and earned a riveting 44-34 victory. He and Temple did well to contain Sanford to 205 rushing yards and two TDs, well below his season averages.
“Heights was my best tackling game because I played in the middle of the field and I got to be my own guy in the backfield,” Mitchell said. “Re’Shaun is a great player and we knew he was a threat we had to stop. He was fast and really balanced and he’d hit the holes. I’d come down if I saw a run and try to make a tackle. It’s 6A football, man. You’re always going to see competition on the field.
“They’ve seen me progress with my hitting, so they like me down at the bottom a little bit more now. That shows my versatility.”
Considering Mitchell’s relatively slight build at safety, Stewart says he’s a very productive tackler.
“He doesn’t lose a lot (of head-to-head battles). He does get rolled up sometimes, but he’s just a very physical kid," Stewart said. "When (offenses) get into big sets, we ask our boom safety to come up and play outside linebacker. Our strong safety and boom safety have to be hybrid kids, and Nate’s a little bit light in the britches to be a hybrid kid. But he’s got the moxie to make up for it. I mean, they’ll pull a guard or tackle out there and he’ll go throw his skinny little butt dead into the middle of it.”
Mitchell made his second interception in the 56-27 win at Killeen Ellison, and he turned in another stellar performance in last Friday’s blowout of Shoemaker. Tasked with taking away the cutback lanes, Mitchell posted three tackles for loss among his seven stops as he and Temple’s physical defense frustrated Grey Wolves speedsters such as Penn State-committed QB Evans and receiver Khamari Terrell.
“I’d say being smart. We had a really good gameplan and knew they were going to be really fast,” Mitchell said of Temple’s defensive key against Shoemaker. “Coach Stewart told us, ‘Beat them before they get there,’ and we had a lot of stops behind the line of scrimmage. They were definitely fast, but we trust in our skills and our speed.”
Said Knox about Mitchell as a proficient tackler in the open field: “I think Nate’s good at manipulating space. He understands how close a runner is versus how far away he is, and he’s able to take good angles. We always talk about footwork and eyes. He does both of those well.”
In an ongoing effort to improve his game, Mitchell enjoys studying NFL defensive backs such as Tyrann Mathieu, Budda Baker, Jalen Ramsey and Trevon Diggs. On weekends he regularly travels to Austin to spend time with his mother, Chanel Mitchell, and also for football training sessions with Bernard Blake of BAM Performance.
His full name is Naeten-Jeremy Keanu’Uakea Mitchell, a nod to his mother originally being from Honolulu, Hawaii, a place he's visited many times
Just as standout receivers Harrison-Pilot and Williams also have mixed in at defensive back at key moments this season, Mitchell said he’d like to earn an opportunity to play some at receiver next year as a senior. Stewart, Knox and offensive coordinator Josh Sadler all said that given Mitchell’s versatility, they’re willing to explore that idea.
“I’m always bugging them about letting me go both ways, because I’d love to. I can play receiver. I’m always trying to tell Coach Sadler, ‘Next year? Next year?’” Mitchell said, smiling. “I go out there in pregame and run some pretty good routes. I pride myself on having good hands.”
The notion of Mitchell wanting to demonstrate his talent on both sides of the ball is welcomed by Knox, who sees that as a prime example of the desire and positive energy that Mitchell brings to this surging Wildcats squad.
“Nate works his butt off. You don’t have to worry about that. He brings so much to this team that I can’t imagine not having him,” Knox said. “He leads by example and with his work ethic. He brings energy and juice, and that’s what I love about him. It looks like he has fun playing football.
“And that’s what I love about being in Temple, is you have kids who love to play the game of football. For the most part, they’re going to have a blast playing the game, and that’s fun to watch. That’s how the game should be played."