Having been coaching defensive backs since 1994, current NC State cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell has coached several players that went on to play in the NFL. The most high profile one is Caleb Farley, who the Tennessee Titans just selected with the 22nd overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Farley’s story is one of triumph, but it isn’t told without adversity and difficulty. When Mitchell first got his hands on Farley at Virginia Tech where he was coaching at the time, Farley had no idea how to play cornerback. After all, why would he? Farley played quarterback in high school and came to Virginia Tech as a wide receiver. It was up to coach Mitchell and his staff to mold a piece of clay. Luckily for all involved, Farley was a rare make. From nothing to something, Farley went from a player that didn’t know how to play the position to one of the best cornerbacks in the nation.
In our exclusive conversation, Mitchell digs deep on Farley, both as a player and a man.
JM: 2019 was a huge season for Caleb Farley. It ended up being his final season of college football. We didn’t know that would be the case at the time. What’s your take on how he approached that season from a mental perspective?
CBM: It started after we had that evaluation of him in 2018. We were brutally honest with each other. We knew which areas he needed to improve in. It started that spring. We really just worked on the fundamentals of playing the position. We worked on eye progression, hand placement and things of that nature. These are things that college football players are supoosed to have, even at our level. It comes naturally when you play the position. Even as a first year player, they at least have a basic idea. Well, here’s the thing. Farley didn’t play the position.
Farley was a blank slate. He had a fall camp in 2018 and then he was a starter against Florida State. You can’t make this stuff up. He didn’t have that foundation in place. We went back to ground zero. We hammered the fundamentals and technique. That’s all we did that spring. We built on his successes. Farley was able to build his foundation that spring. He carried it over into the summer and into fall camp.
Going into 2019, we were no longer just teaching the simple things that most guys have as a starter at the D-I level, especially as a second year starter. I thought his growth from that spring to that fall was tenfold. He’s a kid that just got it done. He got it done both mentally and physically. He understands the importance of practice and meeting time. He dove into the process and made himself a good football player.
JM: It’s incredible to watch and hear about how much he grew for a guy that played QB in high school. He must have really dedicated himself to the process.
CBM: Being a quarterback in high school, you see things from a bigger lens. It was just a matter of adapting the verbiage. He had to learn to go backwards instead of going forwards. He’s a sharp kid. He’s going to learn and pick up whatever system or scheme you put him in. He’s going to apply himself.
JM: That brings me to my next point. I want to touch on the schemes and styles of coverage that he’s familiar with. Everything points to the fact that the Titans want to play more man coverage going forward.
CBM: I’ll say this about playing in [defensive coordinator] Bud Foster’s defense. You have to learn multiple things at that position. We demanded a lot of our cornerbacks. You can be an inverted half-safety. You might play in the box as a linebacker. You can be like a nine-tech off the edge while defending a zone read.
More importantly, 90% of that scheme was man coverage. Farley was able to master a number of techniques. He played and perfected off man press, press-man coverage and that gray area in-between that we call “bump.” The kid has a great skill set. He developed those techniques. Nobody did it for him. He will have multiple techniques in his toolbox to use in those situations.
JM: That’s great to hear. Schematically, did you ever ask him to shadow certain receivers, or did you just line up and play?
CBM: The first year, and I probably did this to his detriment, he needed to play both. We never knew what the injury situation was going to be like on our team. We needed him to play both on the left and on the right. We asked him do that in 2018 while he was still learning the position. We settled down in 2019. He pretty much played exclusively on the left in 2019. We had another guy on the right that was also pretty good. We became more of a right-left situation, but they still needed to understand field and boundary. Coach Foster’s scheme is very demanding. It had a certain level of expertise to it. Farley was able to master that.
JM: Did the Titans ever reach out to you for info on him throughout the predraft process?
CBM: They reached out to me and other members of that staff on several occasions. They did their homework on him. I spoke with a regional scout multiple times. I spoke with the head coach Mike Vrabel at one point. We all had nothing but positive things to say about Farley.
JM: I don’t know how much you know about the Titans and their roster, but how do you like the landing spot for him?
CBM: I haven’t done much background work on them. I know that Derrick Henry is an absolute beast (laughs). I’m aware that the head coach, coach Vrabel is a defensive minded head coach. He was a heck of a player with the New England Patriots. I remember him well. Coach Tony Dews is the running backs coach. I know coach Dews very, very well. I have limited experience with Tennessee, but I know they have some fantastic people on the staff there.
JM: That’s fair. What’s your take on the back injury that Farley suffered, and did you ever discuss it with him?
CBM: Farley gave me the medical reports. To my understanding, he received a clean bill of health after going through the gambit of all 32 teams. They really put you through the wringer during the NFL draft process. He went through that process with each team individually and he received a clean slate.
I’ll say this, I never had a problem with the young man when it came to playing through an injury. He’s willing to play through pain. He wants to be out there with his teammates. He wants to accomplish goals from a team perspective. I saw what the kid was able to do physically after his first back surgery. I’m not a doctor, but I believe the second surgery was more of a maintenance, clean up thing. That’s what he told me. I’m not an expert on why he had the second surgery but I know the kid played through some pain and some discomfort. I tip my hat off to him. In this day and age, it’s easy for these kids to say, “Hey, I’m gonna sit this one out.” Farley played through some things. It was important to him to be on the field. There’s a reason he accomplished what he did in 2019.
JM: Absolutely. This has been terrific. I’ve really appreciated your time today, coach. In closing, from the moment you got your hands on him to your last day working together, which areas of his game took the biggest step forward?
CBM: It was a blank slate. He went from zero to 10 in every area. He did what we hoped he would. He did everything we expected him to do at cornerback. There were some things that came natural to him. Of course, his size helped. That 6-2 frame is terrific. I think he’s a 4.2 and change guy. If he ran the 40-yard dash, he could run in the 4.2’s. We had to hone all that natural ability in. That first year in 2018, he didn’t make many plays. It wasn’t due to a lack of physical ability. The aptitude wasn’t there yet. He was still learning the position. The game started to slow down for him.
I think right now, he’s probably only at about 60% of what he’s going to become in two or three years. The kid has tremendous upside.
Whoever is coaching him in Tennessee is going to be coaching a young man that knows how to apply himself beyond game day. He understands the importance of the meeting room, the film room and practice.
He’s going to grow like no other. He has the ability to play 10 years in this league. He’s going to be a highly productive young man that wants to be great. He doesn’t want to be average. He wants to be great.