Two veteran ex-Arizona Wildcats get surprising shot at NFL glory

Nick Folk kicks for New England.Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Gimino

A pair of former Arizona players have made their mark on the NFL playoffs, including the Super Bowl, in recent seasons. But three-time champ Rob Gronkowski is retired from the New England Patriots, and the Jacksonville Jaguars went nowhere after acquiring Nick "Philly Special" Foles in the offseason.

Two other old-timers who played for Mike Stoops will try -- very surprisingly -- to leave an impression on the 2019 playoffs, starting this week.

Kicker Nick Folk was out of the NFL for more than two calendar years until getting a call to work out for the Patriots after kicker Stephen Gostkowski was placed on injured reserve because of a hip injury and Mike Nugent was ineffective in four games.

The 35-year-old Folk won the job -- and then reclaimed it after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Thanksgiving -- and now might get a chance to add his name to Patriots' lore as they begin their playoff run Saturday against the Tennessee Titans in a wild-card game.

He went 14 of 17 on field goal attempts in seven games for New England this season -- with a long of 51 -- while converting all 12 extra point tries.

"Nick's really come through here in the last half of the season," coach Bill Belichick said late in the season.

He previously kicked for Dallas -- earning Pro Bowl honors as a rookie back in 2007 -- the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he played his final game in October 2017. He also played this spring for the Arizona Hotshots of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.

His career totals: 259 of 322 on field goal tries, 80.4 percent.

Not bad at all.

An unlikely Stoops recruit was retired ... until this week.

Earl Mitchell last played in the NFL with San Francisco in the past two seasons, and he was reunited with the 49ers this week because they were in need of a run-plugging interior lineman. San Francisco lost starting nose tackle D.J. Jones to a season-ending high ankle sprain last month and then lost defensive tackle Jullian Taylor to a torn ACL last week.

Mitchell was cut by Seattle before the start of the regular season and, without any hot prospects, announced his retirement in November.

Then the Niners called.

"I'm telling you, I was pretty content," Mitchell told NBC Sports Bay Area. "I was on the last step of acceptance. But to get that call, it was just an opportunity I couldn't refuse. That's something you'd look back on forever and be like, 'I wish I would've gone back.'"

The 49ers are the top seed in the NFC and have a bye until a game on Jan. 11.

Big Earl has 267 tackles in 130 NFL games (66 starts) over nine seasons, playing for Houston, Miami and San Francisco. He has 24 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.

The playoffs await.