Nebraska vs. UCLA - 9/8/2012

Nebraska's Josh Mitchell (5) defends against UCLA wide receiver Jerry Johnson (9) in the end zone in the third quarter at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. The pass fell incomplete.

FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star file photo

Go ahead and question Nebraska cornerback Josh Mitchell’s size, if you’d like.

You wouldn’t be the first.

That doesn’t bother the 5-foot-11 Mitchell, who’s listed at 155 pounds — the lightest player on the Huskers’ roster by about 15 pounds.

“I just try to use what I have — my speed and my ability to just …” Mitchell said. “I’ve been playing corner all my life, so it’s just easy.”

Mitchell’s size certainly isn’t an issue for teammates or coaches, either.

“He’s got heart, man,” senior safety P.J. Smith said. “You don’t have to be very big to play this game. He goes out there, and he’s not scared to put his helmet on somebody. That’s why he’ll be totally fine.”

Mitchell emerged as a No. 1 cornerback after fall camp, and through four games, he’s shown no signs of relinquishing that position.

Of course, the competition gets a little stiffer for the sophomore from Corona, Calif., come Saturday, when Wisconsin visits Lincoln for the start of Big Ten Conference play.

Mitchell, a fiery competitor who coaches say loves a challenge, seems unfazed.

“This week, it’s going to be all about execution,” he said. “It’s a good team we’re going against — they’re going to be hungry, we’re going to be hungry. They got us last year, so this year we’ve got to come out with some fire.”

Mitchell played in eight games last season, with one start against Washington, and worked in the offseason to establish himself with his teammates.

“Just be all in and let the guys know I’m there for them,” Mitchell said, “and that I’m going to be reliable and I’m going to learn my stuff.”

Terry Joseph, the Huskers’ first-year secondary coach, noticed. He said Mitchell immediately bought into what coaches wanted to do on defense, which allowed him the opportunity to claim the starting cornerback spot vacated by NFL Draft pick Alfonzo Dennard.

Mitchell’s speed, change of direction and overall competitiveness, Joseph said, make up for his lack of size.

“What happens is, he gets out there and there’s 155 pounds that kind of goes out the window, for the most part,” Joseph said, “because he competes at a high level, he plays fast, and his footwork has gotten so much better since the spring.”

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis is so confident in Mitchell’s competitiveness that he said he’s comfortable putting the redshirt sophomore in almost any situation.

“He just competes,” Papuchis said. “He’s not intimidated. He believes in his ability, and he should. He’s a scrappy guy, and that allows him to be an undersized player who plays really big.”

In stature, Mitchell is in stark contrast to his backup, 6-3, 215-pound junior Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a former wide receiver.

“With Stanley, he’s a longer, stronger guy, so when he’s up there pressing receivers, he can bully them all over the field,” Mitchell said. “When they’re lined up with me, it’s more let me use my speed to beat them on routes.”

That doesn’t mean Mitchell won’t try to play big.

“I don’t let the guys push me around,” he said. “Very first play of the game, I just gotta let ‘em know I’m going to be here all game, get my hands on ‘em and let them know it’s not going to be easy for them.”

Mitchell could have a strong challenge Saturday against 6-2, 188-pound receiver Jared Abbrederis, who caught five passes for 95 yards and a touchdown in Wisconsin’s 48-17 victory last year over Nebraska.

Abbrederis had six catches for a career-high 146 yards last week against UTEP, and has three receptions of 40 or more yards this season.

“He’s a really good receiver — really shifty, runs really good routes,” Mitchell said. “We’ve just got to be on our ‘A’ game against him. He’s going to be on his ‘A’ game, so we’ve got to up it.”

Mitchell said he’s learned to trust his teammates and to trust the game plan, and that communication within the secondary is vital.

“He’s communicating with the safeties a lot better,” Smith said. “As long as he communicates with us, he’ll be fine.

“He’s a hell of a kid. He works hard, and he wants to get better every single day.”

Reach Brian Rosenthal at 402-473-7436 or brosenthal@journalstar.com. You can follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBR.

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