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USC spring breakout star Steven Mitchell Jr. continues success in fall camp

The USC breakout star of the spring is now busy at work trying to prove he can become the breakout star of the fall.

Amid all the preseason hype surrounding this football team, you hear plenty of discussion about Cody Kessler, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree' Jackson and a myriad of others.

Nobody seems to mention Steven Mitchell Jr.

Nobody, that is, except his teammates, who are enthusiastic about their new starting slot receiver.

"No question it was Steven," said Kessler, the Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, when asked to name the surprise star of spring camp. "He was making plays all over the place."

He was more than just the most unsung player. He was the most exciting player. The redshirt sophomore was zigging and zagging his way through the secondary to spear passes from Kessler, often turning them into big plays with sharp cuts and speed.

So far, it's been much the same at fall camp, with No. 7 proving to be a complement to Smith-Schuster's deep speed and the intermediate routes of fellow wideout Darreus Rogers.

If it shocks you to know he could be a major factor once the season starts, it is understandable. Mitchell Jr. spent most of 2014 dwelling under the radar while still slowly recovering from knee injury and a hernia he suffered in 2013. He missed all of the 2014 spring camp and popped in only occasionally during the season to catch 7 passes for 82 yards, although he did score a couple of touchdowns.

Some people were disappointed, considering his flashy high school resume. He made some prep All-American teams at Alemany High in Mission Hills and there those who thought he could be the next great Trojans receiver.

But if the injuries slowed him down physically, he swears they helped him mentally.

"It's really been a blessing, to be honest," Mitchell Jr. said. "Since I hurt my knee, it turned out to be a great experience watching All Americans like Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee. I learned so much from them.

"They taught me the fundamentals, and it was so neat, because they are all so different. Marquis, he's just a pure athlete. Nelson, he was the smartest person on the field. And then there was George [Farmer]. He was just strong and fast ... real fast."

Mitchell Jr. isn't tall and rangy. At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, he is more of a Wes Welker type, only with more speed. He flashed all of it in casual workouts organized by Kessler & Co. this summer.

"That's why I'm so excited for the season to start," Mitchell Jr. said. "It's not just me, it is JuJu and Darreus and everyone else. We all have great chemistry with Cody after spending all that time this summer. I think our receiving corps is going to be very strong."

The best part for Mitchell Jr. is simply running free, without worrying about that knee. "I've felt great this spring and into the summer," he said. "I don't even think about the injury anymore. When I first got back I was wearing a knee brace, but I took it off early and once I did that, I'm fine."

Mitchell Jr. used to be just Mitchell. But he added the Jr. for two reasons. "One, I wanted to honor my father," he said, smiling. "And then Odell Beckham Jr. (of the New York Giants) is my favorite player. You know how that goes. I think this also gives me more of my own identity."

If early practices are any indication, plenty of people will know his name before long.

"Steven is now completely healthy," said coach Steve Sarkisian. "You can tell the way he pops up after getting hit and continues playing. I think he feels good about himself."

He also feels good about the team.

"We're all pumped up," Mitchell Jr. said. "This is our year. I really believe it's our year. You look around this field and it's just full of so much talent. We have the numbers behind us now."

The expectations are there, too. Mitchell Jr. has heard and read them.

"Coach talked to us about that," he said. "We haven't played our first game yet, so I don't know how anybody can say how good we will be. Right now, we want to just be concerned with winning our first game and then winning the Pac-12 South."

In the meantime, it might be wise to memorize Mitchell's No. 7.

If all goes as planned, you should be seeing a lot of it in a few weeks.