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NFL Draft’s quiet star was built for this moment — and he’s rising up draft boards


If you stand 10 feet from Quinyon Mitchell while he’s in a full sprint, you can actually hear how fast he is. If you stand 10 feet away and ask him a question, you might not hear his reply.

A cornerback of world-class speed, Mitchell plays football with power and force — pretty much the opposite of his personality. The No. 11 prospect on Dane Brugler’s updated top-100 board for the 2024 NFL Draft, Mitchell has topped 23 miles per hour on the GPS, has 4.3 speed and has defended more passes (44) over the last two years than any defensive back in college football. He’s also careful about his language in front of children, polite to strangers, loyal to the people he loves and completely aware of everything around him.

He showed up on Earth with the physical stuff. The rest of it? That came from his two guardian angels.

Mitchell grew up in tiny Williston, Fla., a town of fewer than 3,000, a half-hour south of Gainesville near the Nature Coast. He has five siblings, including three younger sisters. He calls his mother, Mashona Solomon, his “rock.” He calls his grandmother Marilyn Johnson his “best friend.”

Mashona had Quinyon at a young age. For the first nine years of his life, he lived at his grandma’s house.

And come to think of it, she might’ve helped with some of the speed stuff, too.

“He loved to run so much. Sometimes, he and I would race,” Johnson recalls with a laugh. “He always won.”

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Johnson had just three rules for Quinyon, the last of them golden: Be honest, be respectful and treat others the way you’d want to be treated. These are the tenets Mitchell lives by today. When he turned down high-major scholarship offers out of high school to stick with the mid-major coach who truly first believed in him, he thought of his grandma’s rules. When those same schools tried to coax his transfer with name, image and likeness money three years later, he had the same thought.

As a football player, Mitchell is confident, consistent and at times a dominant weapon — a defender with enough speed, length and balance to take away the opposition’s top weapon in just about any circumstance. He also holds the on-field awareness of a much older player, alternating between poise and intensity quietly and immediately. Like flipping on a light switch.

We are all a product of our environments. Quinyon Mitchell, arguably the top defender in the 2024 NFL Draft, comes from a unique one. Which makes sense, because there’s very little normal about him.

“I want to be able to look at younger kids and tell them, ‘Hey, you can really do this,’” Mitchell says. “To show them that you can really do this.”


Corey Parker was getting ready to shower after Toledo’s 2022 road win at Northern Illinois when someone approached with a question. Parker was in his first season as defensive backs coach on Jason Candle’s staff. This was just his sixth game.

It also happened to be Mitchell’s breakout performance.

Toledo routed NIU by three touchdowns and Mitchell stole the show with four interceptions — two of which he returned for touchdowns. Three of the four picks came before halftime.

Afterward, reporters flocked to Mitchell hoping to color in his incredible feat. Their questions were all met with the same polite responses — some version of “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” Toledo staffers eventually found Parker, who shook his head, put a shirt back on and went outside to tell Mitchell’s story.

Not long after Parker answered the final question, he found his star pupil and gave him a stern but loving message.

“That’s the last time I ever do that for you.”

In football, being quiet can be improperly perceived as weakness by coaches, evaluators and other players. Sometimes that perception’s right. Sometimes it’s not.

The walls inside Candle’s full team meeting room are filled with slogans representative of the program. They’re authentically Toledo. One literally explains the right way to respectfully greet people on campus, with phrases such as “Good morning,” “How are you?” and “Have a great day.” Others are more basic: “The Video Doesn’t Lie” or simply “Get Better.”

Another? “Tell me nothing, show me everything.”

Parker’s first perception of Mitchell was the same as everyone else’s: a player both extremely talented and extremely quiet. He’d seen that movie before. Quiet can mean weak. Weak can mean soft. And soft melts in the heat.

Then the two met. Mitchell walked into Parker’s office for their first in-person meeting ahead of the 2022 season, took a chair and had only one request for his new coach:

“I want you to coach me hard.”

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Here’s the thing about quiet people: You never know what they’re thinking — and maybe that’s on purpose.

Six years before that meeting, Mitchell was a scrawny 5-foot-6 kid who could barely hold up his helmet and shoulder pads as he tried to find a place on coach Justin Wentworth’s Williston High School squad.

Mitchell grew roughly 6 inches ahead of his sophomore year. Many adolescent growth spurts are marred by awkwardness and joint pain, but Mitchell’s featured nothing of the sort. One day he went to bed as the small, fast kid coaches didn’t know what to do with; the next he woke up 6 feet tall and hadn’t lost an ounce of coordination.

Mitchell shifted from being a face in the crowd to an undeniable — albeit still skinny — force, earned a starting cornerback job that season and never looked back.

“I’m not saying he didn’t look a bit like Kermit the Frog,” Wentworth chuckles. “But he is just a naturally gifted athlete. He can do it all.”

By Mitchell’s junior year, he’d become Williston’s lockdown defender and helped push the school into the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. A guy who played above the rim on the basketball court, Mitchell was a do-it-all star as a senior, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry on offense despite playing through an ankle injury.

Off the field? Mitchell was still quiet — but in voice only. When Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida in 2017, Mitchell rode around Williston in the back of a coach’s truck, handing out PB&Js and waters to anybody who needed them. He also helped the school start a meal program for athletes in need.

Five-star athletes get missed all the time. How? Just look at Mitchell’s path as a low-key kid from a small town who went through a late growth spurt and played through an injury. It happens more times than recruiting coordinators will ever admit. But talent falls through the Power 5 cracks constantly.

This is where stealth evaluators like Candle — one of college football’s best — feast.

Candle found Mitchell at a recruiting camp in Florida ahead of his junior year, when almost nobody outside Williston knew the burgeoning cornerback prospect. Some five-star athletes look like five-star athletes in elementary school. Everybody finds them. The rest can only be spotted by those who see talent for what it will be tomorrow, not what it is today.

Mitchell’s path at Toledo was similar to high school. After he got his feet wet as a freshman in 2020, Toledo visited Notre Dame in Week 2 of the 2021 season and Mitchell was all over the field in a 32-29 loss, picking up five tackles and a sack while staying sticky in coverage all day as the Rockets scared the hell out of the Irish. The performance put him in NFL scouting notebooks — a space he’d never leave.

Which takes us back to Parker’s office, and that initial meeting with Mitchell. The Toledo assistant filled his cornerback’s wish. He coached him hard. Every day. He also pushed Mitchell outside his comfort zone, working to create a more vocal player on the field.

“We talked about confidence and it meaning two things: pre-snap and post-play. The old Quinyon? He’d get an interception or a pass breakup and just sort of walk back to the huddle,” Parker says. “And I said, ‘You know what OCs and quarterbacks will always see? How turned up you are after you just made a play.’

“Now, you’ve let the entire sideline and press box know, ‘That was not by mistake … don’t try me again.’”

As always, Mitchell took to his coaching.


Quinyon Mitchell broke up a combined 37 passes over his final two college seasons. (Lon Horwedel / USA Today)

Then, after one game, Parker’s office phone rang. It was Grandma Johnson. During the game in question, Mitchell had done as instructed and celebrated with his teammates after a play. When he did, TV cameras zoomed in on his face close enough for Johnson to take notice.

Rule No. 2: Be respectful.

“He said a bad word,” Johnson says with a laugh. “I read his lips on the field!”

The call was wholesome, but it also reminded Parker of how special his best player was. Parker figured Johnson was upset her grandson had been showboating, which really wasn’t the case. She knew how many schoolkids in Williston watched Toledo games on TV, and how many of them had begun to idolize Quinyon. Message received and embraced — the celebrations continued, with G-rated language.

Candle found himself in a similar situation heading into the 2023 season. Mitchell had earned All-America mentions as a junior in 2022 and, entering his senior year, went to his head coach and asked if he could change to a single-digit jersey number. To that point, Mitchell had worn No. 27, the first jersey tossed at him his freshman year at Toledo.

College football fashion trends will tell you, though, that those single-digit numbers are the sport’s most coveted — some schools often reserve them for their top players. Since Mitchell was Candle’s best player, he had zero problem with the request. The wheels were set in motion.

However, a few days later, Mitchell returned to Candle’s office and told him to eighty-six the number change. Grandma Johnson had told him that 27 was good enough back when nobody knew who he was, so it should be good enough now.

It was. And it’ll be the number they put up on the big board at Toledo whenever they bring Mitchell back to honor him as the program’s first first-round pick in 30 years.

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Rule No. 3: Treat people the way you’d want to be treated.

Toledo wasn’t the first school to offer Mitchell. It was actually the third — and it wouldn’t be the last. After Mitchell ran a laser-timed 4.37-second 40-yard dash at a camp in Gainesville ahead of his senior year, the college football elite came calling. However, despite their living less than an hour from the ocean, Toledo’s Midwestern campus along the Ohio-Michigan line — nearly an even 1,000 miles from Williston — was exactly where Marilyn Johnson wanted her grandson to attend college.

And Jason Candle was the coach she wanted him to play for.

She came to this conclusion after getting to know Candle, of course, but also through quiet observation. She and her grandson have that in common, too. After any school offered Mitchell, Johnson made a point to watch that team’s games — not for the results, but to see how the head coach handled himself on the sideline when the heat turned up. Candle’s demeanor was the same after a bad play as it was in her living room with Quinyon: calm, consistent and to the point.

Mitchell wound up falling in love with Toledo for much the same reason. On signing day, his grandmother asked one last time whether he was sure about his choice. He said he was.

Why?

“He’d watched coach Candle on the sideline during games,” she says. “Just like I did.”

Three years after Mitchell turned down the big boys, they came calling again. After Mitchell’s breakout 2022 season, a handful of SEC schools offered him highly lucrative NIL packages beyond anything Toledo could reasonably compete with.

This is one of college football’s realities — and for Group of 5 coaches, it can be a nightmare. Toledo is often early to offer a hidden gem, who eventually blossoms into a high-level recruit and then signs with a more high-profile school.

Mitchell, though, turned everybody down without blinking.

“This is home,” he says flatly.

The whole thing came full circle in December, when Mitchell graduated. His mom, sisters and grandma all made the trip up to celebrate a day the entire family had been waiting for. Graduation had been part of Mitchell’s motivation to stay in Toledo, too.

His mother has been a driving force throughout the journey. She’s a UCF graduate and now a registered nurse. When Mitchell struggled with anything in school, Solomon’s diploma was his fuel to keep going. Young Quinyon had been in the crowd at her commencement, cheering his arms off. Once again, he just wanted to return the favor.

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As for Grandma Johnson? She can barely go to the grocery store in Williston these days without getting bombarded by well-wishers and questions about Quinyon. Happy tears well up and her voice shakes with pride when asked how it felt to hold his college diploma. The entire family is adjusting to the reality that they’ll have an NFL player — and a multimillionaire — at the table come Thanksgiving.

They’ll get there. Some people, like Quinyon Mitchell and his family, are undeniable.

“In a world,” Candle says, “where every kid’s struggle is, ‘Do I feed into my image or do I feed into my character?’ — here, you have two women who constantly taught and reinforced that this kid has great character, and they’re going to feed into that to make sure he’s successful.

“They’ve all been a coach’s dream.”

(Top photo: Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) 





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