PALO ALTO CA - Owen Marecic #48 of the Stanford Cardinal is tackled by C.J. Mizell #12 of the Washington State Cougars at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
I've hesitated to write this before now, perhaps because I feared I'd jinx it. Over the past year, I've been conditioned to believe C.J. Mizell would always be C.J. Mizell, with all the talent in the world and an opportunity at hand that may go to waste. For me, Mizell was the most frustrating player to watch in a season of frustration.
C.J. Mizell came to WSU as an NFL talent with a high school football work ethic. It's hard to explain to those who haven't watched him in practice why he was on a short leash, didn't start or found himself on the bench for extended periods of time on more than one occasion. He'd show up late to practice, go through the motions like he was running the scout team and head on his merry way. For a middle linebacker who was supposed to anchor a young nucleus on defense, it was the last thing the coaching staff wanted to see.
But something has changed. I don't know what triggered it, but there's something noticeably different this year. We're just about two weeks into the season, but it feels as though Mizell is headed in the right direction, and he's light years ahead of where he was last year on the practice field.
It's easy to tell when Mizell is chatting it up during practice. If you've never heard him before, he has a very distinctive voice. He stands out in the crowd, especially when he decides to raise said voice while shouting instructions. I can't ever recall a time I heard him above the crowd last season in practice. He would quietly go through the motions and be done with it. Practice seemed like a chore -- which it is in many ways, but it's a necessary one that lays the foundation for the week.
This year, though, Mizell isn't just drifting off at practice. He's engaged. He's vocal at times. That distinctive voice can be heard from across the field as he's shouting encouragement, yelling out to watch a certain route or whatever else. It's not a constant flow of chatter, but it's something.
During Wednesday's practice, we sat quietly while watching the scout team offense run against the first team defense. At one point, Mizell turned to the linebacker to his right, and basically put him into position. This may seem like a small thing, but it's a big deal. He's engaged, doing his homework and leading his teammates, even if it's in a small way.
On Saturday, Mizell will be the fourth captain, joining Jared Karstetter, B.J. Guerra and Alex Hoffman-Ellis, the more vocal of the two linebacking captains. Vince Grippi notes why Mizell being named a captain matters.
Here's a kid who almost threw away an opportunity to be a Pac-12 football player due to a lack of work ethic. A year later he's a captain, designated by his coaches as a leader of his team. I've tried to pass along the difference at practice, but just explaining how he's working doesn't tell the story as well as this designation
I never imagined Mizell would earn the nod as a captain, and especially this soon. After all, that distinction doesn't go to the most talented player or the guy with all the stats, necessarily -- it's for the leaders, both in practice and on game-day.
So maybe Mizell has it figured out. If nothing else, he's on the right track. And having Mizell, with all his physical talent, engaged and on his game is a great thing for this team going forward.