By Rudy Jones, FurmanPaladins.com
Even as a high school basketball player in central Florida Mitch McGrath had a nose for the ball.
An archived Orlando Sentinel story on the Internet chronicles McGrath's heroics in the closing moments of a Lake Brantley High victory over Lake Mary Prep his junior season. The article recounts how he stepped in front of a pair of passes on the wing and later came out of scramble with a loose ball to help his team secure a victory.
McGrath, a 6-foot-2, 212-pound, senior linebacker for Furman, has maintained that ball-hawk talent on the gridiron. He ranked second on the squad in tackles as a junior and is among the leaders again this season as the Paladins face Southern Conference rival Georgia Southern today at Paladin Stadium.
His interception against Presbyterian earlier this season was the seventh of his career – not too shabby for someone who didn't start regularly until his junior year.
McGrath suffered a level three shoulder separation as a high school senior, but that misfortune at the time may have steered him onto the path to Greenville.
Like a lot of folks outside the immediate area, he had to be introduced to Furman first.
"When (former Furman assistant) Coach (Drew) Cronic came to one of my spring games, I'd never heard of Furman," McGrath said earlier this month.
"Northwestern was one of the first schools I'd talked to. I took a Junior Day visit there on my own. When I was a sophomore or junior that's where I thought I'd end up. UConn and South Florida (coaches) were standing there (at the spring game) and then this guy comes up to me. He's wearing purple, with a little diamond on his hat.
"He shakes my hand and says 'we really enjoyed watching your film,'" McGrath said. "I was like 'OK.' … But it's where I ended up and I'm really glad it happened."
There had been perfunctory contact from Florida International, and McGrath said he probably could have walked on at Florida. He got to meet coaching legend Howard Schnellenberger during a visit to Florida Atlantic and got to see the coach's Super Bowl ring earned as a Miami Dolphins assistant.
Most of the interest from larger schools evaporated after McGrath's injury, but he had made an impression on Furman recruiters.
"One of the reasons I came here was because the coaches at the time stuck with me (after the injury) and they really made me feel like they thought I would fit in to the Furman football lifestyle," McGrath said. "I think they knew I'd bounce back from whatever injury it was.
"Furman was the first to offer me, and because of my injury I committed right away," McGrath said. "It was really early. It was because at those other places I felt like they were looking at me kind of as a number, kind of if they didn't get somebody they wanted they'd offer me."
McGrath stepped on campus as a 178-pound free safety. He had lost some weight after his injury and is grateful he eventually redshirted his first season.
"I was kind of still in rehab status," McGrath said. "I think coaches felt like I could use that year to put on some weight and get to learn the game. College football is different from high school football. I think they wanted me to be able to take that time to learn it.
"I'm thankful for that time; because I'm glad last year wasn't my last year of playing football.
"I was about 185 pounds before my injury," McGrath said. "I had always played free safety in high school. I wound up playing strong safety here. I ended up putting on about 20 pounds within my first two years.
When Bruce Fowler came in as Furman's head coach prior to the 2011 season McGrath found himself bound for a new position.
"When Coach Fowler and Coach (defensive coordinator John) Windham came, that's really when I made the switch to linebacker," McGrath said. "I think it was just them reevaluating the personnel that we had here. I don't really see myself as strictly a linebacker. Half the time I'm out on slot receivers. That's something that linebackers don't do very often.
McGrath said he likes the differing roles linebackers must play depending on the offense's plans.
"That's what makes it fun for me," he said. "I like contact. I like the fact that I'm five yards deep and wherever the ball is I have a chance to get there. If it's a pass, if it's a run, I have a chance to be in the play.
"Really, that's what any guy wants to is be around the ball; be around the play that's going on," McGrath said. "I love the fact that one play I might be able to get a tackle for a loss and the next play I might be able to intercept the ball or hit the receiver coming over the middle. You've got to make the game fun for you, and I go out there and have a lot of fun playing with the guys. I like to get excited.
"I think technique and stuff – how hard you work in practice – (is important). I'm not big on 'I've got to be at 220 or 225 to go out there and get off a block.' I did that at 195 last year," McGrath said. "I think having more weight helps, especially stuff like trying to make tackles. When you're trying to stop a guy from gaining any yards and he's running at full speed at you I think the more weight you have -- that helps in that aspect.
McGrath played free safety in high school, but also got a little bit of experience on the offensive side.
"(Furman) recruited me strictly as a safety," McGrath said. "We ran the triple option in high school. Whenever we really needed to pass that's actually when I would go in and we'd end up throwing it around a little bit."
"I think it would be fun to be able to go out during a play and know I'm going to run a post route and the ball's going to be there," McGrath said. "I kind of miss that aspect of the game. It's not just strictly you going out and making plays, which is what defense is. It's on you to read and react and make the play.
McGrath believes that limited work on offense in high school has helped his defensive skills.
"I pride myself on being able to catch the ball pretty well," he said. "I always joke around and ask Coach (Fowler) when he's going to let me go in on offense and let me catch the ball.
"If the ball's up there I like to try and go get it," McGrath said. "I like to compete. It's something I've always done. Those guys up front, they work hard and if you can get them off the field the appreciate it. I like to try to do that."
Analysts on football telecasts are wont to say it's important for defenses to play "assignment football" against triple-option teams like Georgia Southern.
McGrath notes that it's important for defenders to fulfill their assignments against any type of offense, but particularly so against option teams.
"The way their offense is set up is to really just grind you down until you do make a mental mistake or if you're not on your assignment on one play, that one play could be the 60-yard gain or the long touchdown," McGrath said. "They want to get three or four yards per play so they can make drives, but they're counting on you messing up here and there.
"In other games you might mess up on an assignment and it might have no effect on the play. But with these guys every single player is taken account for and if that one player is in the wrong gap or doesn't take the dive play -- stuff like that --- they can score a touchdown on that play because of that one guy's missed assignment.
"Coaches do a great job of getting us prepared for it," McGrath said. "We see three triple-option teams and most teams run some sort of zone-read stuff out of the shotgun formation. It's something we see weekly. You've got to keep your focus on the game and try to be conditioned before the game to go as hard as you can every single play just to prevent the big play from happening."
McGrath admits he'd like a chance to play in the NFL, but he knows he might need to put on even more weight for that to be a possibility. "I don't know how that would affect my speed.
McGrath is a believer that while size and speed are easy to measure, a player's heart is not.
"I'm just a guy who plays with effort," he said. "I want to win for the guys next to me.
"That doesn't always translate into an NFL player," McGrath said. "This day and age you've got to be fast; you've got to be big; you've got to be strong. It's not that I'm saying I'm not any of those things. I'm not the biggest guy; I'm not the fastest guy. You can put a number to how much you weigh, or how much you bench or what you run the 40 in.
"There's not really a way to measure a guy's heart."
"If a team were to say 'we might be able to pick you up by free agency if you were at 235 (pounds),', maybe I would try to gain the weight and see what happens. I just want to take the chance," McGrath said. "You don't want to look back and say you didn't try."
"I've talked to a couple of people in the NFL," McGrath said. "We had some Junior Day testing done last year. One thing about guys at Furman is Furman really takes guys and builds them up. At a big school they might take a guy who's already at 230 and runs a 4.3. He might be a defensive end and they might want to pick him up and put him at linebacker. We're a bunch of kids who weren't five-star recruits. I think a lot of NFL scouts realize that not everyone blooms when they're 16- or 17-years old.
"My roommate now is (starting tight end) Colin Anderson," McGrath said. "He didn't show up for (freshman preseason) camp and I'd been on campus for a month. His room was on my hall and this big, tall, skinny kid was 172 pounds. We ended up hanging out a lot. He's just a kid who came in and worked his butt off. He has great hands"
"We were both on (scout team) our freshman year and a couple of coaches were like 'Colin; get over here and play tight end. Our tight end is injured.'
"We were laughing," McGrath recalled. "I was like 'I can't believe you're going over there to tight end.' Look at him now. He grew into something. An NFL team is going to take him and grow him into something even more; more technique, more weight. I think it's like those kind of guys are everywhere, but as an NFL scout I'm sure they don't want to miss out on the one guy here or the one guy there. You see a lot of guys on Sunday who are undrafted free agents."
McGrath said how his play is measured by his teammates is more important to him than any individual statistics.
"To me it doesn't really matter if everybody thinks I have a good game," McGrath said. "The most important thing to me is the guys next to me know that I'm giving my effort and I'm trying to do everything I can to help them win; that's really the most important thing to me. I try to play to the best of my capabilities every week and whether that shows up in the stats or whether it doesn't, or whether people think that I stood out during that game, it doesn't really matter as long as the guys in locker room know how I hard I'm playing for them.
"I really like to think of myself as someone who goes out there and plays with their heart," McGrath said. "When I go out there I'm not just playing for myself. I play for those guys next to me, the people in the stands. I would like for the people in the stands, if they have played before, to say 'I wish I could have gotten a chance to play with Mitch.'
"The guys I play with, my goal are for them to one day maybe tell their kids 'This guy McGrath, he really went out there and played with everything he had for me."
Rudy Jones wrote about hundreds of Furman University sporting events during his almost 40-year-career with The Greenville News and Greenville Piedmont. His coverage of the Paladins' 1988 football national championship earned him a first place writing award from the South Carolina Press Association. The Travelers Rest native has a blog about college baseball in South Carolina:palmettostatebaseball.blogspot.com. Contact Rudy at firstname.lastname@example.org