EGG HARBOR CITY — For the longest time, it looked as if Cedar Creek High School football standout Damon Mitchell was headed to Georgia Tech.
When it came time to sign a binding national letter of intent Wednesday, however, the 2012 Press Player of the Year donned a white-and-red Razorbacks baseball cap and smiled broadly as he officially announced he would be going to the University of Arkansas.
“I knew I was going to Arkansas as soon as I got there (for an official visit last weekend),” Mitchell said Wednesday during a ceremony at Cedar Creek. “It felt like the closest place to where I’m at now. It’s a lot like Cedar Creek in that the coaches, professors and fans all care about you.
“Plus, the SEC (Southeastern Conference) is the top conference in college football. I feel like putting on a T-shirt and shorts now and start training so I’ll be ready.”
Mitchell will be the fourth local player in recent years to play for an SEC program, following Oakcrest High School defensive lineman Tyler Williams (Mississippi), Lower Cape May Regional offensive lineman Josh Eames (Vanderbilt) and St. Joseph defensive end Kaiwan Lewis (South Carolina).
He’s also the first local athlete to receive a scholarship to Arkansas since Ocean City High School grad Melody (Sye) O’Reilly ran cross-country and track for the Razorbacks in the late 1980s. O’Reilly went on to compete in the 1992 and 2000 U.S. Olympic track and field trials.
Mitchell also wants to take his football career to the highest level, which is one of the reasons he opted to sign with Arkansas after making a verbal commitment to Georgia Tech last July.
New Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney are planning on installing a versatile, option-oriented offense similar to those run by NFL teams such as San Francisco, Seattle and Washington. Such systems require a mobile, athletic quarterback such as Mitchell, a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder who rushed for 1,027 yards and 21 touchdowns and also threw for 2,025 yards and 22 TDs for the Pirates last fall.
Prior to joining the Razorbacks, Bielema was Wisconsin’s head coach
for seven years and coached current Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Chaney was Purdue’s offensive coordinator when New Orleans star Drew Brees was firing TD passes for the Boilermakers. Both Bielema and Chaney visited Mitchell and his mother, April Bell, at their home last month.
In contrast, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson relies on a triple-option offense that focuses primarily on the running game.
“That gives me hope (of playing in the NFL),” said Mitchell, who is expected to compete for playing time as a freshman.
Signing with the Razorbacks capped an intense, stressful and hectic recruiting period for Mitchell, who was one of 10 area seniors to sign binding national letters of intent with Division I programs Wednes-day.
He made official visits to Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Wisconsin but also considered Rutgers.
“I was pretty involved in his recruiting process, but at the end of the day, I wanted to make sure it was his decision,” Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said Wednesday. “At some point, he’s going find out if he made a good or bad decision and that decision has to be his and his alone.
“When coach Johnson came up here three weeks ago, I was on Georgia Tech’s side but I could tell something wasn’t right. I told ‘Duwop’ (Mitchell’s nickname) that he should be celebrating, but he wasn’t. After he came back from his visit (to Arkansas) I could tell that was where he wanted to go.
“This was his first decision as a man and I’m really proud of him. It would have been easy for him to just go along and do what people expected him to do. I’m sure people are going to doubt it and question it, but he’s following his heart.”
Mitchell had made his decision by the time he returned from Arkansas on Sunday night, but didn’t break the news to his mother until Monday, after he got home from playing for the Cedar Creek basketball team.
Bell, whose younger son Amir is a Cedar Creek freshman, is very close to Damon. She was the one who gave him his nickname, Duwop.
“When he was a baby, there was a song called ‘Doo Wop’ by Lauryn Hill that used to come on the radio and whenever he would hear it, he would just dance, dance, dance,” Bell said with a laugh. “Plus, when I was pregnant with him, all I did was eat (Burger King) Whoppers the whole time, so the nickname was perfect.
“I was very surprised he picked Arkansas because that one is the farthest away. I went with him for his visit to Georgia Tech and I definitely was expecting him to go there, but at the end of the day, it was his decision and I trust his judgment.”
Extra points: In addition to Mitchell, nine other local seniors signed letters of intent Wednesday: Oakcrest linebacker Brandon Bell (Penn State), St. Augustine Prep running back Calvin Cass (Navy), Mainland Regional place-kicker Jim Cooper (Temple), Vineland wide receiver Toure Douglas (Columbia), Cumber-land Regional tight end/
defensive lineman Gabe Hemighaus (Monmouth), Wildwood running back/
defensive back Wesley Hills (Delaware), Absegami quarterback/defensive back Rashad Kinlaw (Notre Dame), Middle Township linebacker Zack Vogelei (Towson) and Egg Harbor Township defensive lineman Eric Wiafe (Rutgers).
Also, St. Joseph graduate Max Valles, who spent this season at Fork Union Military Academy, signed with Virginia.
Atlantic City wide receiver/defensive back Dayshawn Reynolds did not sign with Temple on Wednesday and may attend a prep school. St. Joseph wide receiver/defensive back Robert Thompson already is enrolled at Old Dominion.
Contact David Weinberg: