Since the light switch flipped on, freshman linebacker C.J. Mizell has been a force on the field. After struggling with maturity issues early in the year, Mizell has turned it around and the Cougar defense has significantly benefited from his play. His growth has been impressive, not just because of his play-making ability, but because he's maturing and growing up as the season progresses. In the last two games, however, Mizell has stepped outside the rules with his play. It may just earn him a reputation that he's not going to like.
I understand his intent. This is a kid that's young, eager to make an impression and looking to fire up the team. However, he can do that by playing within the rules, making clean, hard tackles. It doesn't, and shouldn't, take a suplex or a late-hit for Mizell to scare an opponent.
Against Oregon State, Mizell was quick to make an impression, riding running back Jacquizz Rodgers a good five steps out of bounds, drawing a late-hit flag. After the game, head coach Paul Wulff said he was mad at the time, but looking back on it Wulff took a stance of silent complacency. Even yesterday, Wulff had this to say about Mizell's play.
No, he doesn't think he has to control C.J. Mizell. Wulff said he doesn't think anything Mizell has done has been intentionally dirty, not even the hit to start the Oregon State game. He wants the freshman middle linebacker to go out and play his game.
While his actions may accomplish the goal of intimidating both present and future opponents, they also send him down a path the team doesn't need. As an example of the side effects of play that borders on, or oversteps, the lines of legality, we need to look no further than our own conference.
Arizona State middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict is a supreme talent at his position -- one of the best backers to come through the Pac-10 in some time. His play, categorized by many as dirty, has earned him a reputation he cannot shake. Opponents now regularly target Burfict, attempting to egg him on and draw a flag. Officials have taken notice as well, perhaps having a quick trigger finger when Burfict is involved in a play. It's not a good thing for ASU.
Burfict's reputation may have just cost the Sun Devils a shot at an upset of No. 7 Stanford. Up three in the fourth quarter, a questionable facemask penalty, and a personal foul for Burfict's reaction, put Stanford on the seven yard line. Two plays later, the Cardinal were in the end zone. It proved to be the difference in the game.
While watching the Iron Bowl last weekend, Jeff pointed out a poor call on Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley. My response was simple: "he has a target on his back." Fairley has as much talent as anyone in the country on the defensive line, but he's been labeled as dirty (examples here, here and here). Once that reputation is there, it's impossible to shake.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing Mizell to Burfict or Fairley. He's not at that level and I don't feel Mizell is intentionally dirty. But it doesn't matter if it's intentional or not, players and officials will notice.
Is there anything the staff can do about it? I don't think there is. Reigning-in Mizell takes away one of the best parts of his game: the ability to fly around and make plays. But I will contend that Mizell can, and should, be an intimidating force within the rules. I know he wants to make plays and fire everyone up, but he's good enough to do that with hard, legal hits.