PULLMAN – One year ago, the Washington State Cougars were struggling through another disaster of a season, and highly touted freshman C.J. Mizell was a disaster in his own right.
In a rebuilding program that was stressing accountability to its players, Mizell’s work ethic was inconsistent. At times, it bordered on nonexistent.
When the issue continued in spring practice, coaches called Mizell’s bluff.
“We pulled him in after spring ball and said, ‘Either you’re going to be part of it or we’re going to move on without you,’ ” defensive coordinator Chris Ball said.
Mizell (pronounced MY-zell) got the message. Coaches praised the middle linebacker for his hard work in summer conditioning and renewed focus in the classroom, and Mizell’s hustle and stellar play have stood out in fall practices and games.
“He’s grown up,” Ball said.
“He’s really matured,” outside linebacker Sekope Kaufusi said.
Everyone seems to have a theory on Mizell’s newfound maturity. The birth of daughter Ada Lee last month certainly seems to have had an impact.
“It really opened his eyes up to great things,” Kaufusi said.
“It takes a while for freshmen to mature,” Ball said.
Mizell offered a variety of explanations.
“Coaching. Family life. Starting to be a better team,” he said.
“It’s all just coming together. When it’s coming together, it’s a lot easier to play hard every play (in games) and practice hard every play.”
Mizell and WSU’s other starters have seen limited action in blowout victories in the first two games, but Mizell is tied for the team lead with 11 tackles. He also leads the Cougars with two quarterback sacks, and he’s tied for the team lead with two tackles for losses and one forced fumble heading into Saturday’s game at San Diego State (2-0).
“C.J. means a lot to us,” Ball said. “He makes plays.”
Mizell led the Cougars with seven tackles (all in the first half) in a 59-7 spanking of UNLV last week. His most impressive accomplishment came prior to the game, when coaches selected him as one of the weekly team captains.
“I was just like, ‘Did they say me? L’il ol’ me?’ ” Mizell said with a laugh.
“He’s really become a team player and a team leader,” senior linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis said.
Scout.com ranked Mizell the fifth-best college linebacker prospect among 2009 high school graduates, but he arrived in Pullman with a somewhat checkered past.
There was an altercation with a high school coach and a marijuana possession charge. He failed to qualify academically after Florida State (located in Tallahassee, where Mizell graduated from high school) signed him to a letter of intent.
When the Cougars learned that Mizell later qualified, they put him on a plane for the first time in his life and flew him out West. He reported to fall camp overweight and rusty after sitting out a year, but he started six games and ranked fourth on the team and second among Pac-10 freshmen (behind WSU safety Deone Bucannon) with 57 tackles.
Mizell also sat out one game when he was suspended for violating team rules. The Cougars are banking on Mizell’s sketchy past being just that – in the past.
“As an educator and a coach,” Ball said, “whenever you see a change in a young man, it’s really, really rewarding.”