Sept. 29, 2016
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Dedrick Mills runs hard. That much is obvious. When he carries the ball, Georgia Tech’s 5-10, 217-pound freshman B-back prefers punishment over finesse. All young running backs say they love contact. Then some gargantuan ACC lineman, nostrils flaring and ears pinned back, is ready to dish out the true definition of a college football hit, and suddenly that line isn’t sung with as much conviction anymore.
But there’s a reason head coach Paul Johnson said that Mills was “better than I expected him to be, and I don’t normally say that about a freshman.” The Waycross, Ga., native hasn’t shied away from the tough yards between the tackles, earning him a growing role in Johnson’s option offense.
Against Boston College, Mills became the first true freshman offensive player to start a season opener for Georgia Tech since 2008. His play against Clemson (16 carries, 75 yards, 1 TD) provided one of the few bright spots in a 26-7 loss. His longest run of the night, a 42-yard gash in the third quarter, was wiped out by a penalty. Those numbers are even more impressive considering BC and Clemson ranked first and 20th nationally in yards per carry allowed in 2015.
“He’s a good player, he’s hard to tackle and he understands football,” Johnson said of Mills, who enrolled at Tech in January.
“Running through arm tackles and stuff — as Coach is always calling to me, `You’re supposed to run through those,'” he said.
Dedrick Mills runs hard. Less obvious is why he runs hard.
Mills considered the question after a recent practice. He began with a theory: he still has some old linebacker’s blood in him.
“I was a fan of Ray Lewis. In high school, I also played linebacker,” he explained. “I pretty much had the mindset of playing like Ray Lewis — `nobody can stop me.'”
At Ware County High School, 240 miles southeast of Atlanta, Mills recorded 96 tackles and three forced fumbles during his senior season. His head coach, Franklin Stephens, says he had to teach Mills to miss more tackles when carrying the ball so he could spare his body from the pounding it took as a two-way player. It hardly mattered: a four-year letterwinner at Ware County, Mills started every game of his high school career.
He peeled back the question some more. He grew up in Waycross as the second-oldest of four boys. Kenny is 22. Rashad is 18. Derrione, the youngest, is 16. Four boys, separated by six years in age. That environment, he figured, gave him the perfect conditions for toughening up.
“Growing up with them, as a kid, every day we were pretty much roughhousing and fighting. That was kind of hard,” he said, smiling.
His face turned serious. Mills then hit on the real reason he believes he runs with such purpose, why he refuses to go down easily, why he scraps for every yard.
His mother, Sharon, raised four boys on her own. She currently works as a hotel housekeeper. Love was abundant in their household, but not necessarily resources. Mills says he fights so hard because his mother fought so hard for him and his brothers.
“Coming up as a kid, sometimes not having water and lights — you’ve got that struggle going on. That pretty much drives you. It puts you in that mindset that you’ve got to do better for your family,” Mills said.
“Even the game that I missed [Mills didn’t play versus Mercer because of a violation of team rules], she was still there supporting me just because I was on the sidelines. That really means a lot to me.”
Sharon will be there on Saturday when Georgia Tech faces No. 14 Miami at Bobby Dodd Stadium. So will his oldest brother, Kenny, currently enlisted in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Mayport, Fla. He’ll see Dedrick play at Georgia Tech for the first time on Saturday. His younger brother will try to crack a Miami defense that leads the nation in scoring (7.7) and ranks second nationally in yards per carry allowed (1.57).
A hard defense requires a hard-charging running back. Dedrick Mills expects to fill that role Saturday — and he’ll have plenty pushing him along.