Coming into this ramped-up 2023 Lions’ team fresh out of Virginia Beach, Taquan ‘Smoke’ Mizzell opens a new chapter in his football career with the CFL.
Everywhere he goes, Mizzell was always one of the most difficult players to tackle. But his speed and quickness on the field had also undergone through a series of learning curves before he could taste success over the years.
When Mizzell was a freshman at Bayside High School in Virginia. The speedy tailback was put into a tackling drill with older varsity players. And he made them miss. That’s the beginning of the nickname ‘Smoke’, a title he earned when it was his time to shine.
“I played running back my whole life. They tried to flip me into a corner like once. But I’ve been a running back on while life,” Mizzell said.
The 5-star recruit out of high school then made the decision to stay home to play for the University of Virginia, where he was about to set several records.
Being the only player in ACC history to record 1500 plus career rushing and receiving yards at Virginia, Mizzell lived up to the hype as a dual threat for the Cavaliers’ offence. He is ranked 16th all-time in rushing yards (2,075) and 12th all-time (1,560) with receiving yards in Virginia’s school history. Mizzell practically produced those numbers in his final two years in college, when the first two years were hindered by injuries.
Before he excelled in his junior and senior seasons with 940 rushing yards in his senior year and 721 receiving yards in his junior year, Mizzell’s first major obstacle at Virginia was dealing with a high ankle sprain.
“There was a lot of hype. The injury wasn’t the best for the fans because they wanted to see me play. It was a mental hurdle for me because I was also learning football again. Like in high school, it’s not hard because we were just better than everybody. Once I got to college, I got the chance to learn football, slow the game down and became a better player,” Mizzell recalled.
Even with a smaller stature, Mizzell’s speed, quickness and footwork were attributes he work tirelessly for. He encountered current Los Angeles Chargers receivers coach, Chris Beatty when he was a junior at Virginia. They live in the same town as Mizzell was growing up, and Beatty was once a CFL player for the Baltimore Stallions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Football can be a small world — as Mizzell finds his way to the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Pairing up with another NFL speedster Tarik Cohen and a more physical running back like Jordan Howard, an unforgettable time for Mizzell.
“It was a blessing. Even though I went undrafted, it was still a dream come true. That was a blessing just as well as this is a blessing,” he said.
“Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, a bunch of pro bowlers. I think that was in 2017, 18. Then I started 2019 in Chicago and ended up going to the New Orleans Saints.”
Mizzell was one of the running backs competing for a job with the New York Giants when starter Saquon Barkley was recovering from an ACL tear and MCL sprain he suffered from 2020. But the injury bug also got Mizzell during the following offseason workouts when he tore his hamstring.
Mizzell felt the NFL doorway closing but the Lions still believe Smoke could benefit from playing in a wider field.
Signing with BC was another blessing for Mizzell when the speed back knew he could make an impact in the Canadian game. But another unexpected life event delayed Mizzell’s debut with the Lions while he was about to leave for the 2022 training camp.
Mizzell had to rush to the emergency room to receive surgery on his appendix — he missed the whole 2022 season.
While being away from the field for two years, Mizzell said his son cured his mental health during those dark times when he was still figuring out life outside of football.
“Honestly, being with my son is a huge part of my mental health and my family and loved ones. Because being away from the game and trying to get my life in order, I tried to spend time with the people that I love the most,” he said.
Mizzell stayed home in Virginia for the 2022 season, but he tried to watch every BC Lions game and study what other teams are showing on the defensive side. The 29-year-old back came into camp earlier this May and showed that he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.
“After almost four to five years in the NFL, and now I’m considered a first-year player here is a great experience. It’s almost like a reset. Another chance to start over for me mentally. I really needed that, and Canada has been awesome. The main thing for me is just embracing this process,” he said.
“I knew coming in, nothing was going to be handed to me, that’s how I’ve been my whole life. I’ve worked for everything I got.”
With two preseason games under his belt to truly get a feel of the Canadian game, and a promising debut for the Lions in Week 1 where Mizzell took 12 carries for 81 rushing yards and three receptions for 12 receiving yards. Mizzell is optimistic about his future with the Lions — a beginning for Smoke.
“Football is still football. When you play with a great group of guys, it makes everything easier. My teammates are giving me the confidence I need, and I know who I am. I need to show the other teams who I am,” he added.
“The best part is that everything is new to me. I’m finding out new players or I’m finding out players that are all-stars in this league that I’ve played against in college. Meeting new faces is exciting because I know we got a lot of ballers on this team.”