Keaton Mitchell had to wait his turn to become the feature running back at Eagles Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, GA. But when his time finally came, Mitchell produced a season that placed his name in the state record books ahead of legendary Herschel Walker.
The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder registered 49 rushing touchdowns along with 2,509 yards rushing during his first season as a starter in 2018. The touchdown total is the second-highest single-season mark in Georgia state history, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, ranking just behind the 58 achieved by Emanuel County’s Washaun Ealey in 2007. Mitchell’s touchdown tally moved him ahead of Walker (45), the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner at Georgia two-time NFL Pro Bowl pick.
“He was really a late bloomer,’’ Eagles Landing coach Jonathan Gess said. “We knew he was fast and talented in the ninth grade. But he hadn’t hit puberty yet. He started to blossom in the 10th grade. We could see the greatness in his vision and how fast he was. Then he turned into a phenom his junior year.’’
The “phenom’’ junior season by Mitchell immediately attracted the attention of college recruiters, but the first major program to offer a scholarship was East Carolina. The Pirates eventually won a verbal commitment from Mitchell on October 27 over offers from Coastal Carolina, Colorado State, Eastern Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern, Miami Ohio, Middle Tennessee State, Nebraska, South Alabama, South Florida, Temple, Troy and West Virginia.
An official visit to ECU’s campus in September where he attended the William & Mary game all but sealed Mitchell’s pledge to the Pirates.
“I really like the coaches,’’ Mitchell said. “They made me feel like they really wanted me to be part of their team and their school. And I loved the atmosphere in the stadium and the fans … the fans were all talking to me and telling me to come there on my visit.’’
The decision continues a family tradition in football for Mitchell.
Mitchell’s father, Anthony, starred at Georgia’s Westlake High before earning a scholarship to Tuskegee University. The elder Mitchell then earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent safety with the National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens in 2000. Anthony Mitchell served as a reserve during the Ravens’ run to the Super Bowl championship and participated in one of the defining plays during the playoffs.
Tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter of a divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens blocked an Al Del Greco field-goal attempt, which Mitchell scooped up and returned 90 yards for a touchdown. The play sparked Baltimore to a 24-10 win and sent them on a path to the Super Bowl title.
Anthony Mitchell would spend eight seasons in the NFL before retiring and is now part of the coaching staff at Eagles Landing.
Like his father, Keaton Mitchell’s forte is his speed. Keaton has been clocked at 10.99 seconds in the 100-meter dash, 22.42 in the 200 and is part of a 4×100-meter relay team that holds the Eagles Landing school record.
“There’s no question he is the fastest running back in our program ever,’’ Gess said. “But entering his sophomore year he was only 145 or 150 pounds.’’
The Eagles were also blessed to have other college-level running backs on their roster during Mitchell’s first two seasons with the program. Trevor Gear, now a sophomore at Bethune-Cookman, was the team’s top ballcarrier in 2016 and gave way to Josh Mays the following season. Mays was a sophomore at Troy this season.
Their presence limited Mitchell to just one carry for five yards as a sophomore.
“It was tough waiting because I wanted to get on the field,’’ Mitchell said. “But my coaches told me to develop and learn. And I learned a lot watching those guys. When I got my chance I was able to shine.’’
“Shine’’ may be an understatement. Mitchell made his starting debut in August 2018 by rushing for 149 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-0 rout of Morrow. He would go on to gain over 200 yards in six of Eagles Landing’s 14 games that season, highlighted by a 16-carry, 311-yard, four-touchdown performance against Wesleyan.
Mitchell averaged 11.8 yards per carry on the way to earning Offensive Player of the Year honors for the Class A Private classification from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He was also named to the AJC’s Atlanta-Southside All-Metro squad.
Those video-game like stats have continued for Mitchell as a senior. Through the first 10 games this season, Mitchell ran 128 times for 1,340 yards and had scored 33 touchdowns. His best game to that date was a 25-carry, 195-yard, four-touchdown effort against Holy Innocents Episcopal.
Mitchell hasn’t just been a runner for the Eagles, however. One of the highlights of his senior year came on a pass play, according to Gess.
“We were down 35-28 right at the end of a game and we were on our own 30-yard line,’’ Gess said. “We had already hit him on a skinny post for a touchdown, but it gets called back. So it’s second-and-20 or something, we have two minutes to play and we have to score.
“We throw a simple out pass to Keaton, he takes it and goes to the house. That’s just him. He’s going to will your team to victory. He did the same thing in a game last year. We were down 28-21 late in the third quarter and can’t get anything going on offense. Once again, he pops a 75-yard run and it’s like nobody could tackle him.’’
Mitchell’s big-play skills will be a welcome addition next fall at ECU where the running game has been inconsistent at best this season. The Pirates’ running backs have scored just three of the team’s nine rushing touchdowns this year with quarterback Holton Ahlers producing the most with five.
“I talked about playing (early) with the coaches,’’ Mitchell said. “They said they need some speed in the backfield. They have great running backs, but I think I can add something to the group.’’
Mitchell is the second running back to join the ECU recruiting Class of 2020. Rahjai Harris from Byrnes High in Duncan, SC, gave a verbal commitment to the Pirates on Sept. 28.
Most of the 22 players pledged to the ECU at this point are expected to sign a national letter of intent during the early signing period that starts December 18.