Nov. 6, 2017

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia football team’s secret weapon last week was a walk-on wide receiver, a 5-11, 180-pound true freshman from the Richmond area.

Meet Hayden Mitchell, who graduated in May from St. Christopher’s School.

Early last week, Mitchell was asked to assume a new role — that of a quarterback running a triple-option attack — to help the Cavaliers’ defense prepare for Georgia Tech’s offense, the only one of its kind in the ACC.

“He did an awesome job, and without his extra work we don’t even have a chance to prepare,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall, also the team’s defensive coordinator, said Saturday night at Scott Stadium.

Earlier that evening, the Wahoos had rallied to defeat Yellow Jackets 40-36, a victory that makes them bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011. Mitchell has yet to appear in a game for UVA, but “he’s definitely a big part of this win, too,” said outside linebacker Chris Peace, who sacked Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Mitchell twice.

Under Mendenhall, who’s in his second year at Virginia, the scout team is known as the victory team. Its coordinator this season is graduate assistant Jackson Matteo, a former offensive lineman at UVA.

Heading into last week, the coaching staff expected wide receiver Chuck Davis, who wears jersey No. 19, or running back Justin Zollar, No. 88, to get the assignment of helping prep Virginia’s defense for the elusive TaQuon Mitchell. But Matteo, at a staff meeting last Monday, suggested No. 83 — Hayden Mitchell.

UVA’s Mitchell is an excellent athlete — “He reminds me a lot of [wide receiver] Ben Hogg,” Matteo said — and he’d proven on trick plays in practice to be a capable passer.

Moreover, Matteo said, Mitchell “has a high understanding of the game, and he dives in. He doesn’t just tiptoe. He was fired up.”

Mendenhall said: “It was almost like tryouts, and Hayden was the toughest, smartest, grittiest and gave us the best opportunity.”

Once he was given the job, Mitchell studied videotape of the Yellow Jackets’ quarterback to gain a better understanding of TaQuon Mitchell’s footwork and timing.

“He embraced it,” Matteo said. “He didn’t blink.”

At St. Christopher’s last season, Mitchell caught 49 passes for 1,345 yards and 14 touchdowns. His receiving yards and TD receptions were single-season school records.

At UVA last week, Mitchell lined up behind center and ran, pitched and occasionally threw the football. Matteo estimated that Mitchell completed about 60 percent of his passes. Mitchell made an impression on the defenders he faced daily.

“I knew who he was, but I didn’t know he was that athletic,” Peace said. “Big props to him, because he definitely prepared us.”

Peace smiled. “He got me a few times during the week.”

TaQuon Mitchell burned the `Hoos on a 78-yard touchdown run early in the second half, but he completed only 6 of 22 passes and was intercepted twice.

“Coach Mendenhall prepared us really well,” said All-America linebacker Micah Kiser, who also singled out Hayden Mitchell for praise after the game.

“We practiced so hard. It was unbelievable. So many team periods. We got so many plays in. We were really ready for them.”

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