ECU football Keaton Mitchell

Freshman running back Keaton Mitchell finds the hole in the Charleston Southern defense and runs through.

East Carolina University football (2-2, 0-0 American Athletic Conference) has one of the most talented young running back duos in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) between freshman running backs Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell but it appears that this season Mitchell is ready to take responsibility as the team’s primary ground threat. 

Last season, Harris was named the AAC’s Rookie of the Year alongside fellow running back sophomore Ulysses Bentley IV from Southern Methodist University (4-0, 0-0 American Athletic Conference), according to The American. Harris totaled 624 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in the 2020 season while his counterpart Mitchell amassed 443 yards and two touchdowns in the Pirates’ ground game. 

After watching the pair play side by side last season, it was almost a sure bet that Harris would be the Pirates’ leading rusher at this point in the season, but he’s not and the difference so far has been Mitchell’s blistering speed. 

Mitchell recorded the fastest top speed among ball carriers in week one against Appalachian State University (3-1, 0-0 Sun Belt Conference) at 22.6 mph and in week three against Marshall University (2-2, 0-0 Conference USA) recorded the third-highest top speed in the country after being clocked at 22.2 mph, according to Recruiting Analytics

This kind of speed has been the most dangerous part of Mitchell’s game this season and has elevated his big play potential. Mitchell currently leads the Pirates in rushing yards with 352 total rushing yards, is fourth on the roster in receiving yards with 145 yards through the air and is second in receptions with 14 catches. 

The longest play of the 2020 season for Mitchell was a 34 yard run. In three of ECU’s first four contests this season, Mitchell has recorded a play greater than 34 yards four times. 

In week one against ASU, Mitchell recorded a 63-yard touchdown catch for the first score of the game and a 39-yard run. In week three against Marshall, Mitchell was able to break away for an 88-yard touchdown run for the Pirates’ second score of the game early in the second quarter. Against Charleston Southern University (0-2, 1-1 Big South Conference) in week four, Mitchell took a zone run 74 yards for the score.

If you were to omit those four big plays alone from Mitchell’s 2021 resume thus far, his production in the passing game would be more than halved as would his production in the running game. However, currently ranked No. 66 in the nation in total yards per game, the Pirates certainly have no room to be picky on how they get down the field and score so Mitchell’s big plays will do just fine for now.

None of what Mitchell has done this season should make Pirate fans forget Harris. Against the Mountaineers in week one, Mitchell was the team’s leading receiver followed by Harris. In the week two loss to the University of South Carolina (2-2, 0-2 AAC) where the Pirate offense was rendered nearly immobile, Harris still totaled 70 yards on the ground and averaged five yards per carry. In week three against The Thundering Herd, Harris scored the game-winning touchdown.

While Mitchell has impressed early this season, it’s important for Pirate fans to remember that he and Harris are far more dangerous as a pair than they are apart from one another. It’s only a matter of time before Harris puts on an award-worthy performance like he did for much of last season, but it’s not such a bad thing to lean on Mitchell for now.

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