Safeties reflect on trying process

By Alex Symonds

Big, lumbering, hard-hitting safeties. That’s what 32 NFL scouts thought they were going to see when they came to Champaign and the Irwin Indoor Football Facility on March 13 for Illinois Pro Day. When the measurements and times checked out for former Illini safeties Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell, however, the scouts got more than they bargained for.

“I think everybody expected us kind of just to come up and be big hitters and be stiff,” Harrison said, “And we got to show our flexibility, got to show off our speed.”

The pro day was just one event in a several-month-long process for the former teammates and good friends to achieve a lifelong dream – playing in the NFL.

Harrison and Mitchell’s experience with the draft process has been very different than that of teammate Rashard Mendenhall’s.

A first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday, the highly touted running back was invited to attend the NFL Combine and knew he would be a high selection.

The safeties’ process, on the other hand, was one of waiting and uncertainty.

Before the April 19 Spring Game, Harrison called the week before the draft “one of the longest weeks I’ve ever anticipated” – a week that ended when the safety signed with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

“I’ll be elated just because it’s something I’ve waited for all my life,” Harrison said.

“It’s something I’ve looked forward to for a long time now and just knowing that, at that point, it would be a milestone in my life that I’ve reached.”

Harrison’s waiting situation is also somewhat unique, as he is still enrolled in classes and will receive his degree in the fall. Most football players, like Mitchell, redshirt for a season and obtain their degree early.

Mitchell had been working out and “just kind of been waiting around and still lifting” in Orlando since the end of the season.

He said that being away from campus helped him get ready for the draft, but at the same time it brought a sense of detachment from Champaign.

“Yeah, it feels so weird because last night I went to an alumni thing and it’s, like, ‘Man, I am an (alumnus) and four months ago I wasn’t,'” Mitchell said.

“The transition came so fast where it’s just, like, out of nowhere and it’s sinking in, and at the same time it’s kind of depressing.”

Even though the safeties may still long for their college days, both players say it is time to move on and pursue their pro football dreams.

Mitchell said he would prefer to sign as a free agent, rather than be drafted in one of the later rounds, so that he could pick the situation that best fits him.

The former Illini found that situation in Washington, signing with the Redskins following the conclusion of the draft.

But for Harrison, one thing is for sure: He not only wants a shot at the next level, he wants his good friend and defensive backfield partner, Kevin Mitchell, to succeed as well.

“I’ve known his aspirations for a while. He’s known mine, and it’s something we’ve both wanted to do,” Harrison said,

“At Illinois at times we had to compete against each other and compete against other people. For us to both be able to come out of the same system battling each other (and) making each other better, it just shows that two people can go out, compete, and still be friends and still accomplish things that they want to accomplish.”