Mitzel brings smarts to Oredigger secondary

You don’t exactly have to be a genius to run coach Chuck Morrell’s defensive system at Montana Tech.

In the case of Joe Mitzel, though, it sure doesn’t hurt.

“He’s a genius,” Morrell says of the Missoula native who carries a 3.9 GPA in environmental engineering. “He is exceptionally smart.”

Mizel laughs at the thought of being given such a lofty label.

“I don’t know about that,” Mitzel says. “I don’t know about that.”

Morrell, though, has some proof to back up the claim that Mitzel is a cut above the rest academically. Last week, Mitzel became the fourth Montana Tech student to ever receive the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

In January, Mitzel was the Frontier Conference’s recipient of the Dr. LeRoy Walker Champions of Character Ward. Those are two awards that usually go hand in hand with someone who could be saddled with the genius classification.

Labels aside, Mitzel is combining his smarts with a relentless work ethic that has put him on track to play a critical role in the secondary as the Orediggers look for a return trip to the playoffs in 2013.

“We’re looking for some people to step up and fill Nate Kobold’s shoes from last year, and I think Joe is a likely candidate to be able to do that,” Morrell says.

Mitzel signed with the Orediggers as an All-State running back from Missoula Loyola in March 2009. He played on the offensive side of the ball until Morrell took over as coach of the Orediggers before the 2011 season.

Mitzel, who also played in the secondary in high school, made his mark for on the team for the first time early last season.

Playing as the nickel back, Mitzel picked off a Jeff Logan pass in the second overtime during Tech’s exhausting battle with Montana Western Sept. 15 in Dillon. The interception set up the game-winning touchdown pass from Nick Baker to James Roberts.

“It just kind of happened,” Mitzel says. “All you can do is take the coaching. It puts you in the right spot where you’re just reacting. It just kind of happened. It me in the hands.”

Mitzel remembers the play in Dillon as one that got him out of the doghouse.

“I messed up a couple of times in that game, and Coach Morrell was on me pretty bad,” Mitzel sys. “I was just hoping to get a chance to redeem myself, and it couldn’t have happened in a better way.”

The interception also sent Oredigger fans to their programs trying to figure out who was wearing the Oredigger No. 32 jersey. It didn’t take them long to get used to that number.

Mitzel made several big plays for the Orediggers, who won eight straight games to claim the Frontier Conference title. With the departure of Kobold and several other members in the secondary, Mitzel could be in line for even more playing time in the fall.

The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mitzel, the third oldest in a family with seven kids, isn’t taking any playing time for granted as the Orediggers work through spring drills, however.

“This year I’m not going to say I’m starting,” he says. “I’m just going to put the work in every day.”

Morrell says that is exactly what Mitzel does.

“The thing about Joe is play by play he’s so consistent,” the coach says. “He’s one of those guys who, long term, has continued to give great effort and fight to get better. From coaching standpoint, I really respect that.”

The coach, who employs a sophisticated and complex 3-4 defensive scheme, says having cerebral players like Mitzel makes his job easier.

“I always tell our guys their limitations are my limitations,” Morrell says. “Whatever they can comprehend scheme wise, we can put in. That’s certainly something I really enjoy about coaching football at Montana Tech. I know anything I can come up with on the board, our guys can run.”

Mitzel welcomes the challenge of learning every aspect of Morrell’s system.

“We have had pretty intense scheme, but he allows us to make a lot of checks and calls on the field,” Mitzel says. “He gives us freedom. We can identify things and make changes if we want. That’s what I really like about his scheme.

“Coach always says he can take it as far as we can,” Mitzel adds. “He says if you guys keep learning it and keep executing I’m going to keep pushing you and pushing you. His football IQ is out of the roof. It’s definitely a joy to sit in the classroom and have him teach me things.”

Mitzel also gives an assist to the coaching staff for his impressive GPA.

“One of the things I like about the coaches here is they stress academics a lot,” Mitzel says. “There’s a lot of guys on this team — Pat Hansen and others — who have outstanding GPAs.”

It’s that next-level dedication that Mitzel says helps make him and his teammates look so smart.

“I think it’s really a compliment to the coaches that they push us to work well in the classroom also,” Mitzel says. “They’re there all the time making sure we’re getting our stuff done. They’re always checking us every week to make sure we get our work done.”