Is a surprise still a surprise if you are told to expect it?
It probably just depends on the level of the surprise.
Enter Mitchell Melton.
Melton is a fourth-year junior defensive end for the Buckeyes. He was a true freshman in 2020 and played in OSU’s October 24 season opener against Nebraska that year in front of just 1,344 people.
It was his first game as a Buckeye, and it was also the last time he played in an actual game. And as everybody can tell you, 2020 was a long time ago.
The reason why Mitchell Melton hasn’t played the past two years is because he has suffered a season-ending injury each of the two prior springs. Last year it was an ACL. The year before it was an undisclosed leg injury.
He was held out of the more physical stuff this past spring, but is now finally back and doing well.
“Really well,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson emphasized. “He is 100% now. He’s working out. He’s running. He might be the surprise. He might be the surprise. I’m really looking forward to that.”
Melton is now preparing for his fourth year in college. He played in the very first game of his freshman season, but has since watched his teammates take the field the last 33 games without him.
He is counting down the days, but he also understood the need for patience this spring.
“He’s really hungry. He can’t wait,” Johnson said this week. “We held him out in the spring for a reason. He walked up to me after spring ball and he said ‘Thanks, Coach.’ I said, ‘We need you to be healthy in August. I don’t need to see what you can do [in the spring].’ And I think that really helped him mentally because he knew he wasn’t quite ready. He did the individual drills, we just kept him out of all the team stuff. And I think that definitely helped him get ready mentally.”
In the spring of 2022, new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles openly talked about liking the possibilities of putting Mitchell Melton at the Jack position, which is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Melton had the frame for it.
According to Johnson, he also has the game for it.
“He’s a great pass rusher,” he said. “You guys haven’t seen it very much, but he can rush the passer. He’s tough, he’s fast. He can play relentless. All the good things you want to have in guys playing, Mitchell Melton has that.”
It’s the relentlessness, however, that really stands out.
“Some guys come here knowing how to play hard. Some guys you gotta teach them how to play hard, because playing hard is a skill,” Johnson explained. “It’s not something that you acquire unless you know how to do it all the time. Right? And so what you’ll find that most young guys come in and think they’re playing fast, but they’re not playing fast until you watch the tape. Mitch plays fast. He’s played fast from day one, and that’s what you want, so I’m looking forward to seeing what he can bring to the team.”
Johnson and Knowles have been talking Melton up for over a year now as a pass rusher. Knowles didn’t even bother implementing the Jack this spring because the guy he has earmarked for it wasn’t practicing. The confidence that both coaches are showing in a player who hasn’t seen the field since the world was in lockdown is pretty astounding.
Where does the confidence come from?
“I guess because we’ve seen him more than you guys have seen him,” Johnson said. “We see him in practice. You’ve seen what he can do before he got hurt. He did some really good things rushing from a defensive end position last spring before he got hurt. And you saw some good moments to be like, ‘Wow, I like what he’s doing.’”
The confidence that they have shown in Melton has also given Melton the confidence that he’s doing things the right way and that when the season finally does kick off, he’ll be ready for whatever is asked of him.
“I think it goes both ways, right? If you believe in somebody and trust them, they trust you back,” Johnson said. “Now you got a chance to grow a great relationship. I think that helps. I really do.”
For Knowles, the Jack position is something that he brought with him from Oklahoma State and has been using in his defense for over 20 years now. It is a key piece to what can be a dynamic puzzle.
So why is he so confident in Mitchell Melton?
“I mean, yeah, we didn’t get to see that much of him, but I saw a guy who has that short-space quickness. He has the ability to get off blocks. He can handle a lot from a scheme standpoint, you can put a lot on him,” Knowles said. “And he plays with that kind of demeanor where you just always felt good when he was out there on the field. He wasn’t very up and down. He was pretty straight.”
The next time Mitchell Melton takes the field in a game will be the first time in nearly three years. There will be rust. There will be a learning curve.
But if he ends up doing what both he and his coaches are expecting him to do this season, don’t forget to act at least a little surprised.