How UConn’s Jackson Mitchell makes impact for struggling team: ‘We’re playing for pride’

UConn sophomore Jackson Mitchell habitually watches the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But it’s not because of Tom Brady. Or Rob Gronkowski. Or Mike Evans. Or anyone else on offense.

Rather, Mitchell’s eyes are often affixed on linebacker Devin White.

“I watch a lot of NFL film, study some of the better linebackers in the league,” said Mitchell, a Ridgefield native. “I watch how they play and try to add things they have into my game.”

It is part of Mitchell’s evolution as a player, figuring out ways to enhance his play while taking on more responsibility as a focal point of the Huskies’ defense.

A linebacker himself, the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Mitchell leads the country in tackles with 45 — seven more than Utah’s Devin Lloyd. He had a career-high 16 last Saturday against Army and 15 the previous week versus Purdue.

“He is playing at a high level with an impressive schedule,” interim coach Lou Spanos said. “He’s just getting better, better and better. He practices hard, he’s wired in meetings.”

The most impressive aspect, in interim defensive coordinator Jarren Horton’s eyes, has been Mitchell’s work ethic and willingness to embrace a larger leadership position — especially amid a difficult start to the season.

“When he first got here, he was a really quiet, reserved kid. Now he’s the leader of this defense,” Horton said. “That’s what I say (to him) every day: ‘Lead this defense.’

“I love Jackson. He’s awesome. He puts in the time.”

Wyoming at UConn

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Rentschler Field, East Hartford

Records: Wyoming 3-0; UConn 0-4

TV/Radio: CBS Sports Network/ESPN 97.9 FM

Video stream: CBSSports.com/CBS Sports App

Last meeting: First meeting

Line: Wyoming -30.5

- Doug Bonjour

The Huskies’ defense has been a mess, allowing an average of 46 points and 496 yards per game (ranking 127th and 124th nationally, respectively). With Wyoming up next on the schedule Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network) at Rentschler Field, they’ve given no reason to believe a turnaround is coming.

Nevertheless, Mitchell and his teammates are trying to stay upbeat.

“We keep telling each other we’re playing for each other,” Mitchell said. “At this point, we’re playing for pride. Not a lot of people think highly about us as a team at all. We’re playing for pride. We want to go out and show them what type of football players we are.”

An all-state dual-threat at Ridgefield, Mitchell embraced the opportunity to play for UConn, choosing the state school over several FCS offers, including Central Connecticut State, Fordham, Sacred Heart and Villanova. And his mindset hasn’t changed just because the Huskies keep losing.

“Buffalo was in on him a little bit, but UConn was kind of carrying (his recruitment) from the start because of Jackson’s interest in staying in-state,” Ridgefield High coach Kevin Callahan said. “Playing at UConn was very much a passion of his. I think that was kind of a no-brainer when it all came through.”

Callahan utilized Mitchell all over the field, lining him up as an edge rusher and linebacker on defense. He also saw time at wide receiver, and as a junior caught 80 passes for 1,124 yards and 14 touchdowns.

“Any given Saturday you’re watching college football and hearing about the attributes of their best players, he had them all,” Callahan said. “At the high school level, he was good enough to have all those and be productive with them.”

“What UConn has done a great job with,” Callahan added, “is finding out what kind of player he is.”

Mitchell was thrust into the starting lineup midway through the 2019 season. He wound up leading all freshmen with 6.5 tackles per game (65 total), and has continued to build on that.

“You say Jackson Mitchell, I smile,” Spanos said. “When I first got the job, I visited Jackson when he was in high school. He looked at me, I met his parents, awesome family. To see how he’s developed and matured, he’s a leader, one of the leaders of this team.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour