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Originally published Saturday, August 28, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Linebacker C.J. Mizell ready for turnaround at Washington State

Miles away from his checkered past, the freshman is getting a fresh start — and a welcome challenge — in Pullman.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PULLMAN — C.J. Mizell is a long way from home. The idea now is to stay equally far from the troubles that have put him here.

Call it a great experiment. Mizell is a freshman linebacker at Washington State with a checkered past. When he took a recruiting visit to WSU in January, he had never been on an airplane. He had never seen snow. And now, almost 3,000 miles from where he grew up, he's being tested in ways he never would have guessed.

He has been stretched thin in fall camp with the Cougars, trying to regain what he had before he took a year off; trying to assimilate a more sophisticated defense than he knows; discovering that his abundant skills aren't worth much if he's not in the right position.

"He's just a freshman," says WSU co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. "All this stuff is new for him. He's just got to push through it."

And this is C.J. Mizell, who was the fifth-rated linebacker in the country two years ago by Scout.com. This was a guy some WSU partisans figured was going to come in and start for as long as he's on campus.

"It doesn't matter who you are," says Ball. "It's hard on you."

It's worth noting that of the previous four football seasons in Mizell's life, he missed two. One of those owes to what WSU coach Paul Wulff referenced on signing date in February, when he conceded "a few incidents" in Mizell's past.

Mizell refers to "childish, immature things" of which he will elaborate little.

He grew up in southern Georgia, and it became apparent he had big-time ability. He could run (a 4.48 40 not long ago) and hit, and he would grow to 6 feet 3 and 230 pounds.

One of his defensive coaches at Coffee County High in Douglas scoffed at Mizell's awe at receiving recruiting letters, telling him, "It ain't nothin' 'til you get a letter from Florida State. That's the linebacker school."

Soon enough, Mizell got that letter from FSU and, eventually, a scholarship offer.

Well before then, there was that day early in his sophomore season when he got into a scuffle with the coach at Coffee County, Jerry Odom.

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June Munford, assistant superintendent of Coffee County Schools, says, "It wasn't really a fight. It was an altercation. I call a fight where somebody hits and somebody hits back. I wouldn't call it a fight."

Munford says it happened in the locker room after a practice, and might have had something to do with Mizell being excluded from a group of players chosen to be interviewed by a local TV station.

"It wasn't punches," says Munford, "just some aggressiveness, one toward the other. I can't tell you much more about it."

Nor can the principals.

"Mmm, not really," says Mizell, as to whether that version is accurate. "It's just a bunch of old stuff. It's kind of a sore area. I don't like to touch on it."

At Jacksonville University, where he is an assistant coach, Odom picks up his phone.

"Man, I really don't want to talk about C.J.," he says. "I wish him the best. I've got no comment. That's my stance on that. Thank you."

At that point, Mizell was off the team. Munford says a hearing on the incident was due to take place, but before it did, Mizell's family moved south to Tallahassee.

"C.J.'s had some troubles," says Munford. "He had some other things come up in grade school, middle school, stuff like that. Not violent stuff. He had trouble focusing in the classroom, was the main thing."

Mizell was a force at Leon High in Tallahassee, right there for the hometown Seminoles to see. They signed him in 2009, but he was shy a qualifying test score.

Court records in Florida show Mizell receiving probation in a case in which he was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana.

Not until late last year did Mizell get the requisite test score, after which he met with Jimbo Fisher, the new coach at Florida State.

"He said he wanted to see where my mind frame was, and wanted me to go to a junior college for a year or so," Mizell says. "I just didn't want to go that route."

Mizell thus stayed under the recruiting radar. But a friend of WSU graduate assistant Sheldon Cross tipped Cross on Mizell, and the Cougars began digging.

Wulff says they checked with sources at Coffee County High and in Tallahassee. They scheduled a visit for Mizell last winter, which Wulff characterized as a "feeling-out" process. And after Mizell met with administrators and spent time with coaches and players, Wulff says, they became convinced he was a good person.

Recalling the invitation to visit, Mizell says, "I was like, 'Wha-a-a-t? Come way out here?' I don't know what, but something made me take the trip out here. I liked it. It seemed like the environment I would like to be in."

Mizell says he has no problem with authority and is ready to put "childish, immature things" in his past. He says "Yes, sir" and "No, sir."

On the field, it's mostly been a blur. While the Cougars put in new defensive twists every day, Mizell labors to catch up.

"Yes, sir, I did have expectations to jump right into the ones," he says, referring to the first-team defense. "It turned into a lot of hard work. That's what I need more than anything, is hard work."

It's a fitting match — a struggling football program taking on a player who has struggled.

"They've got me believing they're ready to make a turnaround," Mizell says.

Funny thing, they were thinking the same thing about him.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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