Michael Twichell believes C.J. Mims is one of the best, if not the best defensive line prospect among North Carolina’s senior high school football players.
There is certainly significant evidence to back up that assertion by Twichell, who is Mims’ head coach at West Craven High School in the Eastern North Carolina town of Vanceboro. Over the last two seasons, the 6-foot-2, 290-pound defensive tackle has racked up 120 tackles, 36 of them behind the line of scrimmage, in just 18 games.
The performance has earned Mims scholarship offers from Ivy League programs as well as Power Five conference schools. But Mims decided on June 25 to keep his talents close to home when he made a verbal commitment to play for East Carolina.
It’s only about 26 miles from ECU’s Greenville campus to Vanceboro, where Mims grew up in a football-playing family.
Older brothers Claron and Shaundre preceded him as stud defensive linemen for Twichell at West Craven. Both were first-team All-Craven County and Coastal 3-A Conference selections as seniors at West Craven in 2016-17. Shaundre is now a senior at Charleston Southern, where he earned all-Big South Conference honors last season.
C.J. was still in middle school when his brothers were terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, but followed in their footsteps as a freshman two years later by joining the West Craven varsity.
“His two older brothers played for me in 2016,” Twichell said. “They were really good football players. His older brother, Shaundre, is probably the best defensive lineman I’ve ever coached. But I think C.J. will overtake that.
“He’s different. He’s just rare. He’s a great kid and a hard worker. He’s 6-foot-2, he’s about 290 pounds, but it’s all shoulders and thighs. He’s a kid who’s a student of the game. He’s a technician more than he is a raw, explosive guy. He does a lot of things right when you break down his film and watch it. I think the sky is the limit for him. He’ll be a three-year starter for us on the defensive line, which is a tough place to start as a 15-year-old, which is what he did. I haven’t had one like him.”
Mims showed his potential playing 13 games for the Eagles as a freshman, making 29 tackles and two tackles for loss.
“The one thing different from him and his brothers, he was bigger than they were at the same age,” Twichell said. “He was already, as a freshman, heavier than what his brothers were as seniors . What I’ve come to realize is there are a lot of kids who have the size, a lot of kids who fit the mold. But the kicker we saw early on with C.J. was just his willingness to work at it and continue to get better week in and week out at practice.
“We’ve been fortunate at West Craven to have really good football talent. So one thing that stands out when you coach all those kids and set their ceiling is what they did off the field. C.J. did all the little things right. That’s when we knew he was going to be something special when he was already doing those things as a freshman.”
Mims became a legitimate star and college prospect during the 2019 season while helping West Craven to a 10-4 record and berth in the state 2-A quarterfinals. While appearing in all 13 games, Mims made 83 tackles, 23 tackles for loss and five sacks to earn all-area honors from the New Bern Sun Journal newspaper.
During that campaign, which saw Mims register 11 tackles and three sacks in the quarterfinal loss against Clinton, Twichell saw a major college prospect develop before his eyes.
“There was one game where I knew he was going to be a Division I defensive lineman,” Twichell said. “It was his sophomore year and I saw him on film play all three phases of the triple option from the defensive tackle position. He squeezed the dive, made the quarterback pull it, redirect it, run down the line of scrimmage and force the pitch. The pitch man cuts up (the field) and he (Mims) makes the tackle at the numbers. That was pretty special.
“You watch his highlight (video) and there’s a lot of plays where his effort and pursuit for the football is what separates him from everybody else. You can stick a big-body guy in there at defensive tackle and he can clog up the A gap or B gap. But the difference is made after that when you can shed a block and play down the line of scrimmage. I think he is exceptional at doing that.
“He’s exceptional at finding the ball when the ball goes away from him. That’s the most impressive thing he does. His older brother was that way, and he’s that way. They play with a different effort level between the whistles.”
Despite having the 2020 season shifted to the spring of ’21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mims continued to excel as a junior. He produced 37 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and two sacks in a limited five-game schedule.
Following his junior season, Mims attended camp at East Carolina in June and received a scholarship offer from the Pirates that day. ECU joined a growing list of program who had already offered Mims, including Army, Campbell, Charleston Southern, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgia State, Howard, Liberty, Navy and Princeton.
An official visit to Greenville followed on June 25 before Mims announced two days later his pledge to the Pirates.
“I think that once he got on campus and met (head) Coach (Mike) Houston, talked to (offensive coordinator) Coach (Donnie) Kirkpatrick, I just think he likes how things are starting to turn in a favorable direction there,” Twichell said. “I think it’s a place he feels like he can go in and make an impact at a young age. Not that he’s going to walk in there and start as a freshman or anything. But it’s a place he feels like he can get in there and play and make a difference.
“Everybody in this community and his family can come and watch him without a tremendous burden. It’s only 25 minutes down the road and he gets to play at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, a place he’s watched games growing up as a kid. That’s a special opportunity.”
Twichell considers Mims the definition of a student-athlete, who also ranks in the top 10 in his class academically.
“He’s really embraced the whole part of being a true football player, student-athlete as far as work ethic on and off the field,” he said. “A lot of kids opt to go to the pool, he opts to go to the weight room. That’s been a lot of his success. C.J. is a great kid. He has a great personality. He’s smiling all the time. He’s an absolute pleasure to coach and it’s been that way throughout his time in our program.
“I think when everybody thinks of the prototypical student-athlete, and what they want that kid to be on and off the field and in the classroom, I think that’s really what he is. You won’t find a person at West Craven who will say a bad word about him. He’s never been in any trouble in school. Just a good kid, who works hard and is a good football player.”
Mims is now part of a Craven County tradition that through the years has developed future Pirates and NFL players such as linebacker George Koonce (West Craven), offensive lineman Guy Whimper (Havelock), tight end Davon Drew (New Bern) and receiver great Justin Hardy (West Craven).
“I think Coach Houston and his staff are getting back to getting guys from Eastern North Carolina and the Tidewater, Virginia, area, who’ll play hard for East Carolina. We had Justin Hardy here and he went to East Carolina as a walk-on, and we know what the rest of the story was. So I think there’s a lot to be said about getting kids from Eastern North Carolina.”