NFL Draft 2024: Inside the meteoric rise of Quinyon Mitchell

Former Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell is a Rocket by school and a moon shot by career arc.

In an NFL draft green room Thursday night filled with players from time-tested brands such as LSU, Alabama and Ohio State, Mitchell is the lone player among the 13 invitees to hail from a program outside a power conference.

His path there is remarkable, rising from a three-stoplight Florida town with a population of less than 3,000.

In this most transient era of college football, Mitchell's story stands out as a testament to permanence. He received so little recruiting attention that he courted Toledo by rapid-fire liking the Twitter posts of a staff member, the social media version of a suitor throwing pebbles at a window.

He stuck with his plan to go to college when he didn't qualify out of high school, stuck with Toledo after initially decommitting and stuck around the MAC when lucrative offers came from higher-profile leagues.

In a pre-draft process spent being asked by teams and media why he never chased bigger opportunities, Mitchell flipped the script with his answers. Why would he leave coach Jason Candle's program after everyone there all stuck with him?

"Facts," Mitchell said with a laugh in a phone interview last week. "I feel like Toledo was loyal to me. They gave me that second chance. I feel like I got to develop so much. They made me the person and player I am today."

As much as Mitchell's feel-good, small-school story will resonate Thursday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ABC) when he projects as the first cornerback off the board, it might reverberate even more as the years go on. No player from the Group of 5 or FCS got picked in the draft's first round last year, and Mitchell is the only one projected this season. (There were four players picked from outside power leagues in 2021 and in 2022.)

This follows a greater trend of talent moving up thanks to the NCAA passing NIL rules and the overhaul of transfer restrictions, both of which began in 2021.

The top football talent has been moving to high-profile schools, per data from ESPN Stats & Info. Since 2015, the proportion of NFL combine invites from power-conference schools grew from 75.2% then to 86.6% this year, with invites from the other FBS leagues dropping from 15.4% to 8.4% over that time. (FCS invites dropped from 8.6% to 4.7%.)

Candle bristles at the notion that Mitchell is the last small-school NFL draft star to go so early. He knows a one-year rental for a big school can't replicate the reciprocal power of what Toledo poured into Mitchell and Mitchell poured into Toledo.

"His situation is very unique in the sense he had such strong relationships here" said Candle, who has had nine players drafted since 2017 heading into this year. "He really appreciated his development during his time here. To risk that development and growth when you only have seven months to play, is that worth rolling the dice for?"

Instead of a gamble, Mitchell hit the draft jackpot by sticking with the program that stuck with him.

The story of how Quinyon Mitchell ended up at Toledo from tiny Williston, Florida, varies by who is telling it.

In Mitchell's version, he recruited Toledo by going on the Twitter page of former Rockets staffer Kevin Beard and liking dozens of his posts in hopes of getting noticed.

Former Toledo director of player personnel Ricky Ciccone recalls the kismet of newly hired receivers coach Kerry Dixon needing to remain in Florida after getting hired by the Rockets from the University of Florida because his wife was pregnant. Candle assigned him to recruit Florida in the spring of 2018 so he could stay close in case his wife went into labor. Williston is 22 miles south of Gainesville.

Hank Poteat, Mitchell's former position coach at Toledo, recalls going into the town barber shop, Country Boy Cutz, where he said a quick prayer with the barber, DC Floyd, about Mitchell's future. "It's a small town," Poteat said with a laugh. "One of those towns where everyone knew each other."

Williston is remote enough that it helped make Mitchell hard to find. The recruiting services list only a handful of scholarship offers for him, as he said he chose Toledo over places such as FAU and Florida A&M. Mitchell committed to Toledo in June 2018 and decommitted a few months later when interest began to build. He said an offer came from Arizona State, and there's a listed Illinois offer. Mitchell said Florida flirted but never offered.

But those glitzier schools didn't matter once he didn't get qualifying grades out of high school in the spring of 2019. Mitchell sat out the 2019 season while getting qualified academically, working out in Williston and focusing on "being around the right people."

"It was real hard," he said. "I'd been playing football my whole life, and now I'm watching from the sidelines and the background."

While all the other schools faded to the background, Toledo stayed in touch. Poteat recalls shooting Mitchell texts throughout the fall and not getting a response. He also tracked his recruiting and didn't see any activity.

Finally, Mitchell got back to him. And it was Poteat who delivered the news that Mitchell's grades cleared and he'd be eligible in January 2020.

"He always checked in on me," Mitchell said of Poteat, who is now an assistant at Iowa State. "He really gave me that second chance to be where I'm at today."

And while he spent essentially a redshirt year working out in his hometown, the experience fostered an appreciation for how much he loved the game and dictated his level of dedication upon return. And Toledo believing in him forged an indelible bond, which led him to enroll that December.

"When I went through it, it was kind of crazy," Mitchell said, "I was wondering why I went through it. Looking back, it's the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It made me not take the game for granted and mature a lot."

The thunderclap moment that announced Mitchell as a potential NFL draft prospect came during his junior season in 2022. In a 52-32 blowout of Northern Illinois, he intercepted four passes and returned two of them for touchdowns.

Before then, Mitchell's career had ascended in somewhat traditional fashion -- reserve in 2020, starter in 2021 and an all-league star in 2022, when he finished with a school-record 20 pass breakups. Throw in five interceptions that year and he led the country with 25 passes defended.

Mitchell is 6 feet, 195 pounds, and he ran a blazing 4.33 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Part of the reason he believed he could stick around Toledo in 2023 and reach his NFL goals was that he had seen them achieved at Toledo.

When he arrived in 2020, Mitchell quickly bonded with safety Tycen Anderson and cornerback Sam Womack. Both ended up becoming fifth-round picks in 2022, with Anderson now playing for Cincinnati and Womack playing 23 games the past two years for San Francisco.

"Those two guys took me under their wings," he said, "and I saw firsthand their businesslike approach to the game on and off the field. They are two great role models I looked up to."

They also showed him the available path at Toledo. Another former Toledo corner, Justin Clark, left for Wisconsin after the 2021 season and never found his footing there.

With the four-interception starburst, an All-MAC season and his name emerging as an NFL prospect after 2022, Mitchell had no shortage of options. But he didn't ponder them long, as staying in the same scheme with the same head coach in Candle, defensive coordinator Vince Kehres, corners coach Corey Parker and strength coach Brad Bichey was appealing. "Just try to stay loyal to those who are loyal to me," he said.

One of the tenets of Candle's program is a fitting one: "Character Over Image." Bichey, Toledo's director of football strength and conditioning, said part of building that character means Candle frequently has frank and honest conversations with players about where they stand.

Mitchell pointed out that his development curve included him playing special teams, working into a partial starter and then a full starter. As he grew into a star, he appreciated how consistent Candle remained at every step.

"Just how real he is with me and what kind of person he is," Mitchell said of Candle. "He's a players' coach, always there for me and my teammates. I appreciate him for both caring and coaching us hard."

By sticking around, Mitchell helped his stock continue to soar. This past season, he earned second-team All-American honors, established himself as Toledo's career leader in pass breakups (46) and solidified his trajectory to be Toledo's second first-round pick, joining Dan Williams in 1993.

He established himself as potentially the draft's top corner by looking like the best overall player on the field at the Senior Bowl and then running that 4.33 at the combine. He approached the pre-draft season with the same no-flinch mentality he took at Toledo.

Since the combine, he's been back in Toledo. Bichey observed that when Mitchell is in the weight room, the intensity of all the players working out increases by his presence. Same when he's working out with the defensive backs.

"The guys behind him, they don't want to let him down," Bichey said. "He's coaching them up and training with them. There's a lot to be said about that type of selfless behavior. This place means a lot to him."

And it means a lot to Mitchell to represent Toledo in the green room Thursday, a proud Rocket on the highest trajectory for a full-circle moment of mutual appreciation.

"I'm so proud, so excited to rep the city," he said. "This is my second home. If I'm not back in Williston, I'm here. I want to represent Toledo and show all the love they showed me."