As Ravens RB Keaton Mitchell eyes a bigger role, the rookie holds on to a simple thought: ‘I can’t get caught’

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Just two weeks ago, Keaton Mitchell’s NFL career was more possibility than reality.

Yes, the Ravens rookie running back had tantalized fans with Ferrari-grade acceleration during training camp and had made the team as an undrafted free agent. But he started the season on injured reserve and had touched the ball exactly once going into the Ravens’ Nov. 5 game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Nine carries and 138 yards later, his name was on the lips of every fantasy football manager in the country. If anything, Mitchell seemed more untouchable a week later against the Cleveland Browns, running away from the best defense in football to put the Ravens up 14-0 in the first quarter. He looked like a video game character whose speed had accidentally been set 25% higher than everyone else’s.

“I can’t call it; you’ve got to see it,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said, grasping for words to capture Mitchell’s burst. “Every time he touches the ball, it’s like he’s right in front of me and next thing you know, he’s in the end zone.”

After the rookie turned a short pass into a 32-yard gain to set up another score against Cleveland, anything seemed possible.

Mitchell touched the ball twice the rest of the game, setting off a firestorm among Ravens fans who wondered why this potent speedster sat on the sideline as a 15-point lead slipped away.

In two games, the soft-spoken 21-year-old moved himself from the fringes to the heart of Baltimore football discourse.

“I don’t really focus on things like that,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “I’m just here to do my job and make things happen when I get my chance.”

What about facing the two-time defending AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals in prime time Thursday?

“I ain’t never really experienced nothing like this,” he said. “I don’t know how big this is supposed to be.”

In the next breath, Mitchell said it would be “just another game.”

Ravens fans and fantasy gurus will surely keep an eye on Mitchell’s usage given his fade from the game plan against the Browns.

Coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that the Ravens might have benefited from keeping the rookie more involved. “Looking back on it, would we have wanted him out there more? Yes,” he said Monday. “I think that’ll factor into this game plan. The way it got called [against Cleveland] — those plays weren’t the ones he was scheduled for.”

Why did offensive coordinator Todd Monken steer away from Mitchell’s hot hand while the Ravens averaged 3.4 yards per carry in the second half? The rookie had demonstrated he could run between the tackles against Seattle, and he’s also a threat to line up wide for a pass route or motion into a jet sweep.

“It’s a very good question,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s something that’s probably … As you look back on it, [it’s] part of the process of getting a young guy in there and working him into the game plan as part of the process as we go. I don’t think we felt probably as an offensive coaching staff we were going to throw the whole game plan on him. Those are the plays that get called from the groupings that were called in the second half.”

While fans were happy to second guess the Ravens’ process, Mitchell showed little interest in stoking controversy.

“Hopefully, I can get in the game a little bit more,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens. If it comes my way, I’ll make the best of it.”

Spoken like a second-generation NFL player whose father, Anthony, helped the Ravens win their first Super Bowl.

“Just always be ready; you don’t ever not want to be ready when your name’s called,” he said, recounting the advice he received at home. “Things happen, but when my name’s called, I’m going to do my best.”

Harbaugh believes the sons of NFL players are unusually equipped to deal with the inevitable crests and dips of a football life.

“I think there really is an advantage,” he said of Mitchell. “He comes from a great family. He’s been raised so well, and he’s been raised in the football environment where he’s watched his dad. He’s proud of his dad. He’s seen the old clips of his dad with the Ravens. It’s very meaningful to him to be in the National Football League, to be here.”

Mitchell closed his college career with seven straight 100-yard rushing games, scoring a dozen touchdowns in that span, but East Carolina had little chance to take center stage playing in the American Athletic Conference. He then went undrafted as teams turned up their noses at his 4.37-second 40-yard dash time because they feared his 5-foot-8, 191-pound frame would not hold up to NFL pounding.

So this really is his first big bow on the national scene. “Just the social media aspect, you know everybody’s watching around the world,” he said. “You get attention all over the world, not just locally.”

He’s coping by keeping his life as simple as possible. When a hole opens, he knows what to do with it.

“If I get some space like that, I’m hoping for a touchdown,” he said. “I hope I don’t get caught. That’s the only thing. My friends are going to be on me, so I can’t get caught.”


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