PULLMAN – C.J. Mizell stood at a fork in the road.
The choice was his to make, but the road map had been drawn pretty clearly by Washington State coach Paul Wulff and new linebackers coach Chris Tormey.
The sophomore middle linebacker could rededicate himself to playing football the way Wulff and Tormey wanted, or he could head back to Florida and start over somewhere else.
He had to make a decision.
“At the end of spring, I felt disappointed with myself for the effort I brought,” Mizell said Wednesday after the Cougars’ fourth preseason practice. “I felt I had to recoup and go back to the basics and just get down and work hard for the team.”
For the team. For himself. And for someone else.
Spring football had just ended and Mizell, one of the bright spots of the defense down the stretch in 2010 but an unwilling practice participant his entire freshman season, had seen little action with the starting group.
Tormey, a 32-year coaching veteran, had come aboard prior to the spring workouts and immediately moved Mizell down the depth chart. He made it clear to anyone who listened the Cougars would be fine with Mike Ledgerwood at middle linebacker.
Anyone who didn’t want to work at practice wasn’t welcome, no matter how talented they were.
Mizell, who quickly admits now he didn’t give the effort needed last season, knew where he stood.
“He had to make some tough decisions about what he wanted to do with his life, whether he wanted to continue to be part of this program,” said Tormey. “Since then, he’s been on the right track most of the time since spring football got over with.
“I’m encouraged by his progress.”
According to teammates, Mizell’s decision began to show in the summer when he was religious in making the early-morning workouts, something that hadn’t been in his repertoire previously.
And that attitude carried over into this week.
“I’m trying to bring intensity to practice,” said Mizell, who is still backing up Ledgerwood, a senior who started four games last season. “I want to get my teammates turned up. When I turn them up, they start turning me up. So we’re just firing off each other out there.
“You see us, we’re practicing hard, we’re working hard. As long as we’re working hard and as long as we practice hard … every practice, that’s just makes us better.”
Mizell came to WSU last year from Tallahassee, Fla. Rated the fifth-best linebacker in the nation by Scout.com, he signed a letter of intent with Florida State. But when he originally failed to get a qualifying test score, the Seminoles asked him to go to a junior college.
Instead, Mizell raised his score to the NCAA standard and headed West. He started six games for WSU last season and made 57 tackles, including maybe the biggest one of the season, driving Oregon State’s Jaquizz Rodgers nearly out of Reser Stadium on the game’s first play. The play drew a 15-yard penalty but seemed to fire up the Cougars in their lone Pac-10 victory.
Mizell is quick to credit Tormey’s influence for his new-found attitude.
“A lot of hard coaching,” he answered when asked what Tormey has meant to him. “I just have to know all my stuff or I’m not going to be on the field.
“He’s just a hard character. He’s standing on me hard, hard, hard. He just keeps pounding in my head that I’ve got to know this and I have to know all my stuff or else I’m going to be where I’m at now.”
But there’s also another motivating factor for Mizell, 20. Last Sunday he become a father. And the sight of little Ada Lee hit him hard.
“There is a lot of growing up to (having a child), a maturity,” he said. “Now I’m playing for me and my family. That does have a lot to do with it.”
“I think anybody who has ever had a child feels like they are on cloud nine,” Tormey said. “And I think that’s where he still is. But, really, I think he understands it’s not just about C.J. anymore. It’s about Ada Lee. That’s changed his perspective a little bit.”
The Cougars aren’t even a week into preseason camp, so the question must be asked. Will the effort continue?
Mizell says yes. For a lot of different reasons.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces and a lot of new people and (they’re) bringing a lot of new excitement to the team,” he said of his – and the team’s – attitude. “It’s changing. It’s a lot easier to get excited about things.”
“He’s excited about being here and playing well and things are going his way,” Tormey said. “He brings a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of juice to his teammates.
“Hopefully, he’ll continue the trend. He had a good day today. It’s one day, right? We’re one day at a time.”
Mizell agrees. He feels he’s got a handle on what’s expected of him.
“I’m just letting go of things,” he said, “and just falling into the groove of everything we’ve got going on, trying to work hard and get back to the fun of football.”