The NCAA transfer portal is always open. With 10 transfers over the last two seasons — including five Division I transfers new to the Oklahoma roster in 2021 — OU has made a living off transfers in recent years. Every Tuesday this summer, SI Sooners examines Oklahoma's 10 best transfers — junior college and four-year — of the last 20 years. (Josh Heupel and Torrance Marshall, class of ’99, are outside of that time frame.)
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Lance Mitchell’s arrival at Oklahoma couldn’t have happened at a better time.
But it almost never happened at all.
Many forget now that before Mitchell first got to OU as a junior college All-American linebacker from City College of San Francisco, he actually had signed with Florida and was taking classes in Gainesville.
It all worked out in the end. The SEC said Mitchell wasn’t eligible to play in 2002, so he enrolled at OU in December 2001 and became a 2002 All-American and a 2004 crusty veteran, with a frustrating knee injury in between.
But the Sooners needed another impact linebacker after graduating Torrance Marshall in 2000 and Rocky Calmus in 2001, and Mitchell was the perfect fit to step in and play alongside All-Americans Teddy Lehman in 2002 and Rufus Alexander in 2004.
Mitchell’s otherwise stellar OU career was disrupted by a knee injury early in the 2003 season. But then-linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Brent Venables said in 2004 that the Sooners continued to hold Mitchell in high regard whether he was a first-year transfer dominating games, a medical redshirt rehabbing his left knee or a salty veteran leading by example.
“We tease him all the time,” Venables said in 2004, “that he's like that old beat-up pickup truck that the farmer drives around that's never going to break down, gets him from A to B to C, and you can always count on it starting for you when you get up in the morning. That's Lance Mitchell for our defense.”
At Los Banos High School in California, Mitchell played both linebacker and tailback. He rushed for more than 3,000 yards and 36 touchdowns and averaged almost 9 yards per carry as a senior.
But his future was at linebacker, and at CCSF he led the Rams to back-to-back undefeated seasons, two straight California junior college championships and two JC Gridwire national championships in 2000 and 2001. He was voted team MVP his sophomore season and became a first-team juco All-American. When he eventually arrived at OU with fellow CCSF linebacker Pasha Jackson, it was one of the biggest juco recruiting hauls in all of college football.
Mitchell made an immediate and profound impact on the Oklahoma defense in 2002. Playing middle linebacker next to Lehman and chasing ballcarriers behind the likes of Tommie Harris, Jimmy Wilkerson, Kory Klein and Jonathan Jackson, Mitchell started every game and led the Sooners with 124 tackles, including a staggering 19 tackles for loss (tying Marshall’s school record for linebackers, since tied by Lehman and Eric Striker) to go with three quarterback sacks, seven QB hurries, six passes defensed and four forced fumbles.
Read Lance Mitchell's popular online journal during the 2004 season:
The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Mitchell was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and earned second-team All-America accolades from CNNSI. He was an ideal combination of athletic ability and football instinct, a player who seemed to easily anticipate what was coming and almost always defeated his blocker to bring down the ballcarrier.
Mitchell’s total of 124 tackles was the most by any juco transfer in OU history, including Marshall (97).
However, Mitchell’s time at OU was wrecked the following year when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 3 against Fresno State. He took a medical redshirt while Wayne Chambers and Gayron Allen inherited his snaps in the middle. In the three games he did play, Mitchell had 17 tackles and two TFLs. Many fans think he might have been one of the x-factors the Sooners needed in the National Championship Game loss to LSU.
“Led our team in tackles, barely knew the defense and was just a very dominant force for us,” Venables said in 2004. “Made a big difference on our defense and was off to another stellar start starting in 2003 and blew his knee out.”
Mitchell came back strong in 2004 but struggled at times dealing with the knee injury. He ranked second on the team with 78 tackles and still finished with 10 tackles for loss. He also had two sacks, four QB hurries, five PBUs, two fumbles recovered and a forced fumble to go with a 28-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Kansas.
“He had a lot of people pulling him in a variety of directions telling him what was best for him, obviously,” Venables said before the BCS title game loss to USC. “You know, the idea of playing in the NFL, foregoing an opportunity to come back, that type of thing — and the mental challenge more than anything, overcoming a devastating knee injury like that, what that takes, the time, the commitment, the toughness, the ups and downs that go along with that and the uncertainty on what happens when you do come back. It certainly hasn't been easy for him this year.”
Venables said Mitchell’s knee “bothered him on and off” all year, starting in the preseason, but he finished the ’04 season having strung together some of his best games and leading the Sooners in tackles in three straight games against KU, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
“I think it speaks volumes for the type of man that he is, the way he handled the knee injury when it first happened,” Venables said. “He's having to cheer me up. I'm feeling terrible for him, and he's telling me, ‘It's OK, coach, I've still got a redshirt year.’ But that speaks volumes for the kind of man that he is, and he's that presence that you want on defense; doesn't ever get too high, too low, just very strong.”
Mitchell was a fifth-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, No. 168 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. But he played just one season for the Cardinals, playing in 12 games and making eight total tackles as a rookie backup.
In 2006, Mitchell played in two preseason games for Arizona but was injured and reportedly accepted an injury settlement with the club.
Mitchell went on to play in the Arena Football League, earning AFL All-Rookie Team honors in 2007 with the Orlando Predators and then signing briefly with the Arizona Rattlers in 2007-08.