SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — Tougher even than bringing Kahlil Mitchell to the ground is trying to find the right label to describe what type football player he is.
The 6-foot, 198-pound senior fullback is the hammer that drives South Pittsburg's power wing-T offense and is also one of the biggest hitters on defense. But as he proved in last week's semifinal road win, he can also be shifty and fast enough to juke and outrun defenders.
"The thing about him, sometimes you have fullbacks that could just run between the tackles but Kahlil can get the tough yards inside and he's also fast enough to hurt people on the edge," said Pirates offensive coordinator Wes Stone, who coached Mitchell on the other side of the ball last year as defensive coordinator. "I'd just say Kahlil is a very talented player who can do a lot of things for us.
"His versatility is why we're able to do what we've done on offense this year. And we count on him to be a leader on defense too, so there's no doubt he's a real big reason we are where we are now."
The top-ranked Pirates (12-1) are in familiar territory, playing for the Class 1A state championship for a fifth time in seven years. They will face second-ranked Union City (12-1) Friday at noon at Tennessee Tech.
Stone and first-year Pirates head coach Tim Moore knew they could build the offense around Jajuan Lankford, a two-time Mr. Football award finalist and this year's winner of the state's back of the year award, for a successful season. But if the team was going to compete against a regular season schedule that included five teams that were either state-ranked or district champions, the Pirates needed a viable second option on offense.
Mitchell has surpassed those expectations, rushing for 1,455 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging more than 8 yards per carry. That's just 400 yards behind Lankford's season total and Mitchell also ranks third on the team with 72 tackles and two sacks.
His physical, between-the-tackles running style has kept opposing defenses focused on stopping the middle of the field first. That has allowed Lankford and backfield mate Corbin Fitzgerald to use their speed to get to the outside, turn the corner and rip off big gains. South Pittsburg has averaged a punishing 347 rushing yards per game this season, and in 497 attempts, has lost just 177 yards while gaining 4,690.
Last week, with Lankford nursing a sore ankle and in slippery field conditions at Coalfield, Mitchell chewed up yardage in chunks, rushing for a career-high 283 yards and five touchdowns.
"That felt good to have the chance to be such a big part of the offense," said Mitchell, who is being recruited by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, The Citadel, East Tennessee State and Lindsey Wilson College. "I'm used to being the second option and blocking a lot and that's okay, but it was good to get a chance to step up in a big game too and help my team so much.
"Coming into the season, I knew my role was to be the physical guy on both sides of the ball. I like that, but there are some days after a game where I just wake up and go sit in an ice bath because I'm so sore."
Mitchell, and his brother Kyan, a two-way lineman, are following in the footsteps of their dad, Kevin, who was an all-state running back for the Pirates in the early 1990s. Kevin earned the nickname "School Bus" because he often carried defenders for extra yards, and Kahlil runs with a similar style.
"It means a lot to get to play the same position as my dad here," Mitchell said. "He gives me a lot of advice, and we trash talk with each other a lot. He tells me I'm not as tough as he was, and I remind him that he never beat Jasper [Marion County] or played for a state championship and that I never lost to Jasper and I'm about to play in my third championship game.
"Now I just want to go out and help us win another one."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...