Mitch Daniel is an undersized possession receiver with speed who gets lost at the snap weaving among linemen and linebackers until he pops into the foreground — suddenly with the ball, racing upfield.
Former Muhlenberg College football coach Mike ”Duke” Donnelly knew he wanted a player like Daniel, who scored a school-record 27 touchdowns his senior year in the Colonial League. After being unable to speak to Daniel on the first school visit, Donnelly made a second recruiting trip to Notre Dame High School three years ago to pitch his program to the speedy running back more interested in going to college at Pitt than joining a college roster.
Suddenly sold on the Mules, Daniel enrolled. At the first practice he targeted the meeting for running backs.
“Where are you going?” Donnelly asked.
“I’m a running back,” Daniel answered.
“No, you’re not,” Donnelly clarified. ”You’re over there. You’re a receiver now.”
Now a junior on fourth-ranked Muhlenberg’s 11-0 team, Daniel sees the wisdom in Donnelly’s vision.
He’s caught 40 balls (second-most on the team) for 511 yards and four touchdowns this season.
He ignited the offense in Week One by hauling in a 25-yard pass and scored the team’s first touchdown this year against the College of New Jersey. He added a 30-yard score later that game.
Last week he caught four passes for 32 yards in the first half as the Mules blanked MIT 38-0 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Muhlenberg will need to make SUNY Brockport’s nationally-leading run defense move and tire with short passes Saturday in the noon showdown at Scotty Wood Stadium in Allentown. Brockport advanced out of the first round with a 33-28 victory at Western New England. The Golden Eagles (9-2) are playing in their third-straight NCAA tournament after winning the Empire Eight Conference.
Their defense limits opponents to 14.5 points per game, ranking 14th in Division III.
“Points are going to be at a premium this week,” Muhlenberg head coach Nate Milne said.
Getting the ball to Daniel and Centennial Conference scholar-athlete award winner Max Kirin, along with all-American tight end Ryan Curtiss, could help offset the Eagles’ pass rush.
While Muhlenberg has outscored opponents 42-11 on average, the margin for error shrinks in the Sweet 16.
Last week’s pre-game script called for short passes to open room for the running games. Expect that again this week.
“I think that’s always critical at the skill positions to have speed,” said Milne of Daniel. “It may not be the most important thing. You need guys with size at the receiver, some with speed, and some with wiggle. Mitch has a little bit of wiggle and a lotta bit of speed.”
Daniel’s grandfather Michael “Mitch” Elias came to the United States from Lebanon by himself to live with his uncle Joe Daniel. The Daniels took in Michael Elias to help get him treatment for polio; he assumed their surname.
“Some of my cousins are Daniel and some area Elias,” Mitch said. “I would say it’s like 30 percent Daniel and 70 percent Elias.”
Now one of the family names is being broadcast on the back of Muhlenberg’s No. 26 as members of Easton’s Lebanese community come out to support Mitch, the grandson who’s running with his opportunity.
They understand what it’s taken just for Mitch to get on the field.
Freshman year: broken ankle.
Sophomore year: bedridden at times with mononucleosis.
Junior year: Game 1—two touchdowns. A return to the Mitch of Old.
He needed that initial touchdown against TCNJ for several reasons.
“That kind of gave me the confidence to know I belong on the field with these guys,” Daniel said. “I faked the corner route, went back to the post route, and it was open.”
Last year, as Muhlenberg advanced to the national quarterfinals at Mount Union in Ohio, Daniel watched the game in Pennsylvania on his laptop. A win Saturday would put him and his teammates back in the quarterfinal round against the Salisbury-Union winner.
“We definitely want to get on the pass game early,” Daniel said. “They play a lot of man-to-man defense. As receivers we’re just going to have to beat that. It’s on us to get open and give the quarterback a target. If receivers can get open, that will greatly improve our chances for success.”
Daniel might lull the defense to sleep, then sprint into his rightful place.
“It feels great to be back,” he said. “I’ve been waiting two years to get back and show them what I can do.”