Interviewing for engineering internships each of the past two summers, prospective employers seemed more interested in what Kenny Mitchell was doing outside of the classroom than in one.
They wanted the scoop on his experience as a Cal Poly football player.
As far as Saturdays are concerned, there wasn’t much to tell.
Mitchell, a reserve slotback, had played some special teams. Mostly, nagging injuries had kept him from rising up the depth chart, and his playing time was minimal.
But Mitchell didn’t put in any less work. He was up at 5 a.m. getting ready for morning practice just like the starters. He was in the positional meetings and conditioning sessions and juggling travel responsibilities with study time.
To someone looking for a hard worker, the games were almost immaterial.
“I’d just tell them that you have to have great time management skills and be responsible and have all the things like that that they want from an employee,” said Mitchell, a fifth-year senior. Mixing football with engineering “takes it to another level when you’re able to do both.”
This past summer, Mitchell interned under teammate Nick Dzubnar’s father, Mike, a vice president at civil engineering company CDM Smith. Mike Dzubnar came to Cal Poly to play football but left the team to concentrate on school when he was unable to balance football with engineering coursework. So, Dzubnar had a unique appreciation for Mitchell’s educational experience and, Mitchell said, promised him future work when he completes his degree.
Being a Mustangs football player paid off for Mitchell without him ever being considered a key player, a starter or even a contributor — which makes this season like a sweet dessert. Mitchell has gone from an afterthought to indispensable for Cal Poly (6-4, 5-2 Big Sky Conference), which had two slotbacks, including returning offensive MVP Kristaan Ivory, among five players suspended indefinitely in connection with an alleged attempted armed robbery in training camp.
As a runner, Mitchell has had just eight carries for 35 yards, but he leads the Mustangs’ triple-option offense in receptions (15), is tied for the team high with two touchdown catches and is essentially the lead blocker at the point of attack for many of Cal Poly’s big plays offensively.
Mitchell threw the block that leveled two Idaho State defenders and cleared the way for receiver Kyle Lewis to take a screen pass 44 yards for a touchdown against the Bengals last week.
Teammates on the sideline gave Mitchell all the credit. One of four team captains, he gave it right back.
“When he plays well, we play well,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “Our players get excited when he’s playing well because they respect him, and they want him to do so well. There’s not a person in our program that doesn’t look at him and say, ‘Wow, man, that’s really why we do what we do, to see people like him succeed.’ ”
Mitchell was probably in line for playing time going into his sophomore season. Walsh said he was the most outstanding player in spring practice that year, but Mitchell suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out for much of the season.
Similar minor injuries continued to dog him, and soon Mitchell was lost in the shuffle.
Coming into the year, however, Mitchell demanded to be noticed. He made a case for his leadership abilities and took the talking points to running backs coach Aristotle Thompson, the team’s other captains — Dzubnar, defensive tackle Chris Lawrence and fullback Brandon Howe — and eventually to Walsh.
“And I looked at him and said you’re probably correct on some of the things you’re saying there,” Walsh said. “I’ve coached for 37 years, and I’m not sure I’ve had a better captain.”
One of Mitchell’s most captainly contributions came during a late-September road game where he was left off the travel roster with a concussion.
Determined to mentor his replacement in the rotation, sophomore slotback Elias Stokes, Mitchell rode an Amtrak train on his own to Northern Arizona in time to join the team for the Saturday game. That night, he rode it back to his hometown, Fontana, and drove back to San Luis Obispo in time for Monday class.
Three weeks later, Mitchell caught his first career touchdown, a 3-yard pass that gave the Mustangs a 21-20 lead going into the half at Sacramento State. Mitchell’s touchdown helped erase a 17-7 deficit and jumpstarted a run where Cal Poly outscored the Hornets 49-10 over the final 381⁄2 minutes of the game.
“It’s just fulfilling as a coach,” Thompson said, “to see the players who’ve worked so hard see their opportunity come to fruition, see them actually get to get out there and do it.
“Just seeing him playing with passion and other guys rallying around him, that’s a huge thing that can become infectious within your program. Other guys realize, ‘Hey, I want to be that guy.’ ”