In the Paul Johnson era, it has become exceedingly rare for true freshmen to start games, unless they are filling in an injury-riddled role. However, this year, one freshman has burst onto the scene and proven his worth as a starter: B-back Dedrick Mills.
Mills started getting mentioned early this year, before the season even started. After enrolling early and starting school in the spring semester of 2016, he made his name known. Throughout the spring, many a teammate and coach would mention him as someone to look out for in the fall and definitely someone to look out for to compete for the starting spot at B-back.
Mills quickly showed that he could live up to the hype. In his first game, he capped off the game-winning drive against Boston College with a 4-yard touchdown run.
His first touchdown would turn out to be one of many. Mills leads Tech in touchdowns and rushing, but he is not just leading Tech in many offensive categories; he’s almost topping the ACC and the country. In total scoring, Mills is third in the ACC behind FSU kicker Ricky Aguayo and Louisville’s Heisman candidate Lamar Jackson. He is also ranked sixth nationally in touchdowns scored, courtesy of ESPN.com. That is no small feat for someone who was playing against high schoolers this time last year.
When asked about how he has adapted to college play so quickly, Mills responded, “I feel pretty confident. I mean, it’s pretty much the same stuff I did in high school, so it ain’t nothing to come from doing that to bring it up here and do the same thing but do it twice as hard.” It is this straightforward mindset that allows Mills to succeed.
His running style matches his mentality. Mills does not dabble with cuts and spin moves; he simply gets his job done.
His powerful, slogging style allows him to succeed at pushing through in short yardage situations, especially near the goal line.
So far this year, Mills has not run around hapless safeties, nor has he leaped over linebackers. He has instead run straight through his opponents. As the true freshman said earlier this week, “If I have to run into somebody, I do.”
That style is what has allowed Mills to have the most touchdowns out of any freshman in the country. According to ESPN.com, he is the No. 1 freshman in the country when it comes to scoring touchdowns.
The only shocking thing about Mills’ performance so far this season is the lack of recognition he has received nationally relative to his peers.
Within the ACC, he has received Rookie of the Week for his performance against Miami in Week 5, but beyond that he is quietly having an excellent season.
In addition to his physical ability, it seems that Mills is rarely fazed during a game. He stays focused and engaged on the game, even when he is not always getting the ball.
When asked how he stays in focus so well, Mills responded, “Basically just paying attention to my assignment and paying attention to what other people are doing, listening to the coaches on the sideline and listening to what’s going on.”
Furthermore, Mills channels all of the positive energy from the game into his play. In the Boston College game, he and the rest of the team could have easily failed to advance the final drive, even after the 4th and 19 conversion.
This drive is the quintessential example of the trust Paul Johnson has in Mills when the team enters a goal-to-go situation. Both plays for the Jackets within the 10-yard line on the drive put the ball in Mills’s hands.
For a freshman in his first game, it was meaningful to both have the trust of the coaches and live up to it with serious implications on the line.
Scoring the game-winning touchdown was more than just another score for Mills. It was early evidence of the trust and responsibilities placed on him early in his college career.
However, it should be noted that Mills still has work to do. In his opinion, he needs to work on his blocking, specifically in passing situations.
B-backs coach Bryan Cook thinks Mills has a long way to go before he is a force. The most important thing Mills has to work on is his off-ball activity.
“Playing the same way when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands [is important],” Cook said, “because we’ve seen him when he’s got it. When he’s got it, he’s violent, and he’s doing some really good things. We’ve got to carry that over when he doesn’t [have the ball].”
His improvement is tangible, though. On the third play of the game against Georgia Southern, quarterback Justin Thomas broke away for a 58-yard run for the first touchdown of the game. The run wouldn’t have been possible without the block set up by Mills.
Early in the play, Southern’s Ironhead Gallon was prepared to stop Thomas before he even reached the first-down marker. However, the delay created by Mills allowed Thomas to slip by Gallon and break away for the opening score. The play created momentum that the Jackets did not relinquish over the next three quarters of play.
This sort of unselfish play is what will differentiate Mills from other talented runners who are perhaps less willing to take the dirty work required to succeed in the Tech offense.
Despite its occasional offensive struggles, the Jackets have a medley of talented runners, from the speedy Qua Searcy to converted receiver Clinton Lynch. Mills, however, has come the closest to filling Zach Laskey’s role in the vaunted 2014 unit: a power runner with a nose for the end zone and the temperament to move the chains in short-yardage situations — a key asset.
Make no mistake, Dedrick Mills is still early in his Tech career. He has yet to play in a bowl game and yet to face serious athletic adversity, a difficult injury or a painful blunder.
However, while he does have a lot to work on if he hopes to become even better, Mills is up for a formidable challenge.
“You either gonn’ go play, or you ain’t gonn’ play,” Mills said of his preparation, “ So I just be ready to play all the time.”