STARKVILLE — Phil Helmuth watches Mississippi State football games conflicted with pride and a longing for what could have been.
Helmuth is the boys basketball coach at Booker High School in Sarasota, Florida, where MSU wide receiver Osirus Mitchell make a name for himself on the basketball court. At one point, Mitchell’s chances of playing college basketball might have been better than his chances of playing college football.
“It didn’t matter what he chose to do, he was going to be great,” Helmuth said. “He worked very hard at football.”
Mitchell’s decision to pour all of his efforts into football is playing out pretty well after a breakout redshirt sophomore season that saw him lead No. 18 MSU in receptions (24) and receiving touchdowns (four).
The 11 a.m. Dec. 1 Outback Bowl (ESPN2) will be a homecoming of sorts, as Tampa’s just an hour north on Interstate 75 of Sarasota, and the people back home are excited to see the same athleticism that made Mitchell excellent in both sports applied to just one.
“I’m not surprised at the level of success he’s having,” said Renardo Goodwyn, who was Mitchell’s football coach at Booker High and is now coaching in Virginia. “His recruitment really didn’t get kicked off until his senior year. I used to tell him all the time, I wouldn’t offer you off your junior year film. It was his growth. He really had to learn how to play with that long frame.”
The same 6-foot-5 body that made Mitchell a force on the basketball court is the same body that made football a steep learning curve.
On the court, Mitchell was naturally dominant. Helmuth said he, “made basketball look easy.”
“He has great timing, great hands. Wingspan, jumping ability, his position on the court, he can finish well,” Helmuth said. “He didn’t put much time in it and he was still a great player.
“I looked at it through the lens of a basketball coach, and if I remember right, he was 6’5″ with a 6’10” wingspan. You’re licking your chops. You’re looking at a 6’5″ wide receiver with a 6’10” wingspan, that’s a big area to throw the ball to, and he’s got good hands.”
Football required more work.
Physical talent was never the issue — Helmuth said Mitchell had enough jumping ability to touch the top of the square on the backboard. All he needed to learn was how to apply that to football.
Mitchell accomplished that the same way he worked up MSU’s depth chart: relentless work.
Goodwyn remembers Mitchell as the guy who would work out two, sometimes three times a day. He would run drills on the beach just for the added difficulty of sand, a tradition that still goes on to this day. Goodwyn called Mitchell one night at 8 o’clock last spring, just to accidentally interrupt Mitchell at a sand volleyball court running drills.
“Most kids his age are out enjoying the college atmosphere and the college life. He’s out there doing drills, trying to get himself better,” Goodwyn said. “Osirus has always been a blue-collar, hard-working kid.”
But Mitchell still nearly didn’t receive an opportunity to play football. Several coaches visiting Goodwyn to see Kelvin Pinkney, a defensive lineman who went to South Florida, thought Mitchell was in Pinkney’s class (2017), but Mitchell was a 2016 prospect. That’s why Mitchell took visits to MSU and Minnesota in May and didn’t sign until June, months after the original signing period: coaches are so accustomed to players coming onto the scene in their junior years, whereas Mitchell didn’t break through until his senior year.
When all of those pieces came together, Mitchell’s talent was obvious. Goodwyn noticed his footwork was improving and he had gained a better understanding of how to use his body. When Helmuth watched him play football, he saw the same attributes that made him a good basketball player.
“A lot of what he did was he had a great disposition,” Helmuth said. “His attitude was I just want to do whatever it takes to make my team better. He wouldn’t pout when he didn’t get the ball, he would just do his role.
“When you look at it in the context of building a good program or team, he’s already such a good athlete he’s got the respect of his teammates, and with that attitude and demeanor he’s going to make it even better just by that. He’s got a competitive nature about him.”
There is a sense that it’s all coming together for Mitchell in Starkville. On top of the physical attributes he learned in his final year at Booker High, he learned more in his now three years as a Bulldog. He had to if he was going to find playing time in this receiving corps, looking up to a senior and four juniors, plus a highly-regarded recruiting class with two wide receivers expected to compete for immediate playing time.
He did it all while still learning the nuances of the position at the college level. The crash course that was a year of hard training for football was enough to get him a chance in a college football program, but he would need more to rise to the top of one.
“I’m really learning stuff. I’m learning stuff even from the the younger receivers because they grew up on football only,” Mitchell said. “I’m learning from everybody around me.”
Four years removed from wondering if he would focus his efforts on basketball or football, Mitchell is one of the best perimeter options for a SEC football team. The future is bright.
“He’s got it all right there in front of him,” MSU wide receivers coach Luke Getsy said. “It’s sitting in front of him and it’s up to him what he wants to do with it because he’s got a special opportunity, he really does. He’s got a unique set of skills and he’s a really smart guy, so he’s got to put that together.
“As we grow in this thing, he could be a really special football player.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson