PULLMAN – The first time Mitch Peterson sat down with his teammates to eat a free, specially prepared meal at the proverbial training table was at the start of his junior year.
Sure, he’d been invited in the past. But he wasn’t a peer. And he would have to pay for his share out of pocket.
Peterson was a walk-on until the first day of his junior year. A member of the Washington State football team but without the free education, free food and, most importantly, the respect and expectations afforded to his scholarship teammates.
The NCAA’s Legislative Council has recommended allowing all athletes to the table, a proposal that will be voted on by the Division I Board of Directors on Thursday.
“It makes you feel more like part of the team,” Peterson said. “I think it’s awesome that walk-ons get to be part of training table because they are a huge part of the team and it’s just really good for building that culture.”
After texting his parents with the good news – as collegiate bill-footers they were the greatest monetary benefiters of Peterson’s progress, after all – Peterson continued his transition from roster-filler to contributor.
The safety started to play and not only in practice, appearing in eight games.
And during this spring he is transitioning again, from safety to linebacker and from player to playmaker.
In an effort to get Peterson on the field and to improve the coverage abilities of the linebacker corps the WSU coaches have moved him to Sam linebacker, and there is “no question” he will see the field quite a bit this fall.
“He’s battling with Cyrus (Coen) right now for the 1 spot; he’s pushing him pretty hard,” linebackers coach Ken Wilson said. “I think Paris Taylor has done some good things there, too, but since we got back from the bowl game I would say Mitch has improved more than any of my guys so I’m pretty happy about that.”
The long, blonde hair bursting out from under the helmet and the made-for-daytime-TV “surfer” persona belie a football player who appears eager to get as close to the line of scrimmage as possible.
“Just right in the action, man,” Peterson said. “Every play you’re right there. You can do something or you’re hitting somebody.”
The work ethic that turned Peterson from a student into an athlete has allowed him to adjust to the intricacies of his new position quickly.
There are young players on WSU’s defense who will have to play before their time has come next season, particularly in the secondary. These players draw extra attention, and ire, from the coaches who seem to know that the unit’s success depends on their ability to make quick learners out of their inexperienced charges.
But though Peterson is working at a new position, with new coaches and next to new teammates he is not among those who require extra attention. If anything he’s giving them pointers.
“He doesn’t make a lot of mental mistakes,” Darryl Monroe, the only linebacker whose spot is not up for grabs, said. “Mitch is the kind of guy you see that you can count on to never miss tackles, make the proper read, know his assignment. All his technique is there.”
The physical aspects of playing linebacker are coming to Peterson and his toughness is not a question of being willing, but simply being able.
But what the 6-foot-1, 214-pounder lacks in imposing physique he makes up for with ability in coverage reminiscent of, well, a safety.
Coen had 60 tackles last season and to unseat him from the starting spot is asking a lot. But getting a scholarship after three years in the program wasn’t an easy task, either.
Whether he starts or not, Wilson says that Peterson will see the field at both Sam and Will linebacker spots, in nickel packages and particularly against pass-heavy offenses.
So Peterson doesn’t see himself in competition with Coen at all.
“It’s more a competition with myself and how good I can be,” he said. “I think it’s the same way with him. We’re both supporting each other because it’s about being the best team.”