DeKALB – When the NIU football team entered a COVID-19-related quarantine in mid-September, Jyran Mitchell was a wide receiver for the Huskies wondering if there would even be a fall season.
By the time the two-week quarantine was up, Mitchell was a running back preparing for a Nov. 4 season opener against Buffalo.
"Change is a part of life so I embrace it and roll with the punches," Mitchell said. "Like I said, I'm always here to help the team. It's a 'we before me' type mentality."
The Huskies began practicing the day the quarantine lifted, Oct. 2. Mitchell, a 5-foot, 11-inch, 195-pound redshirt sophomore from Rich Central, said he found out that day about the coaches' plan to move him from receiver.
Mitchell played four games last year, mostly on special teams.
Receiver wasn't even his original position – at Rich Central he played quarterback.
"It was a good reaction," Mitchell said. "I was happy to be back in the box like in my quarterback days. I played read-zone quarterback, so it was a more natural transition than going to receiver. Plus I've got Rondarius (Gregory) and the veterans to help me out learning plays. So it's been an easy transition and a great way to get the ball in my hands."
Second-year head coach Thomas Hammock said the team is trying to maximize Mitchell's usage. While wide receiver is fairly deep, the running back room is inexperienced.
"He's been a guy, a quarterback in high school, and is great with the ball in his hands," Hammock said "Obviously we like what we have in Jyran and want to find a home for him. So at the running back position we see he's a natural ball handler with speed and breakaway ability. It fit like a glove. Last year we tried our best to find a spot for him and it seemed most natural at receiver. But there were other guys on the team, and he's taken to running back very well."
Mitchell said he likes the way the position is shaping up, with Gregory, a redshirt freshman, and junior transfer Erin Collins. He also said true freshman Harrison Waylee is a speed threat as well.
Mitchell said he's happy to make the move.
"Coach Hammock felt I could have more of an impact on the team helping out in the running back room," Mitchell said. "I'm a young running back but an older player, so I can help bring along the younger running backs with off-the-field things as well."
One of the biggest adjustments, Mitchell said, is learning to hit a specific hole – something a quarterback doesn't have to worry as much about.
"Probably the trickiest thing is a quarterback can pretty much run anywhere, the whole field is open," Mitchell said. "There's not just one hole, per se. But as a running back, you have to hit this gap and know the intent of the play. It's more challenging to learn the blocking schemes. I did know them at quarterback, but you need to know the free hitter in each look and stuff like that."
Running back coach Nic McKissic-Luke said he's been impressed by how fearless of a runner Mitchell has been.
"He does a really good job in between the tackles. He's adjusted smoothly. There are some technical things that need to be corrected with him, but he's only going to get better, and who knows how good he could be as a running back."
McKissic-Luke said it's been a smooth transition so far.
"The thing that has really helped him is he's a really smart football player," McKissic-Luke said. "He has the ability to pick up things fast. He's probably been in the group a week or so and he has the playbook pretty much down. He knows it from the running back aspect. It's helped him come over and pick up things fast."