Jan. 3, 2017
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the surname of the Georgia Tech’s leading rusher in the TaxSlayer Bowl began with an `M’ and had two `L’s in it.
What might have surprised some was that that name was not Marshall, as in sophomore B-back Marcus Marshall, the team’s leader with 624 rushing yards during the regular season. He’d announced his intent to transfer and was nowhere near Jacksonville on New Year’s Eve. Instead, it was Mills, as in freshman B-back Dedrick Mills (who actually led the Yellow Jackets with 75.2 rushing yards per game during the regular season), that proved the workhorse against Kentucky and is a favorite to be the Jackets’ lead horse in 2017.
Mills, who finished the regular season with 602 rushing yards (only 22 behind Marshall) despite playing in just eight games, rambled for a career-high 169 yards on 31 carries and scored the game-sealing touchdown on a three-yard burst with just over two minutes remaining in Tech’s 33-18 TaxSlayer Bowl win. With the Mills-led victory, the Jackets finished 2016 with a 9-4 overall record, a remarkable bounce-back from its 3-9 campaign in 2015.
Ending the season on a high note was special for Jackets and especially rewarding for the 5-10, 217-pound native of Waycross, Ga., who experienced his share of ups and downs during his debut college season.
The ups were very high.
Mills was a two-time ACC Rookie of the Week and the first Yellow Jacket to win the award multiple times in a season since Calvin Johnson did so four times in 2004.
A nose for the end zone helped him earn those honors. Mills led the Jackets with 11 rushing touchdowns and 12 overall scores during the regular season. He was especially good at hitting paydirt late, as five of his 12 regular-season touchdowns came in the fourth quarter. Included in those were the game-winning points in the season-opener against Boston College, Tech’s lone touchdown against eventual ACC champion and national finalist Clemson and an important score at Georgia that pulled the Jackets within six points with less than seven minutes to go in what turned out to be a 28-27 triumph.
The downs were a pair of suspensions for violating team rules, which accounted for three of his four missed games (he also missed one contest due to injury). But head coach Paul Johnson was proud of how Mills grew up over the course of the season.
“I think he can be a very special player. He’s a very talented young man. We’ve got to try to help him grow up,” said Johnson after the TaxSlayer Bowl victory. “At that age, when you’re 18, we all didn’t make great decisions. It’s our job to help him make the right decisions because he’s got a bright future if he’ll continue to work hard.
“I was getting on him today,” Johnson added with a smile. “I told him he was getting a little fat. But he was a workhorse today. He played tough.”
Mills was very tough on the Wildcats, averaging 5.5 yards per rush. He started the day with a 13-yard run on his first carry and had a long of 27. Most of his carries, however, were his patented short, tough bursts. On 10 different occasions, he picked up first downs, including a key three-yard gain on fourth-and-one from the Yellow Jackets’ own 15 in the second quarter. That pivotal first-down run keyed a 94-yard touchdown drive that have Tech a commanding 17-3 late in the first half.
The Jackets increased Mills’ workload as the day went on against the Wildcats. He carried nine times in the first half, followed by nine runs in the third quarter and 13 carries in the fourth. His number was called on six-straight plays and 7-of-8 snaps during a 12-play, 68-yard, fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a field goal that stretched the Jackets’ lead to 26-10.
Mills never seemed to notice how difficult his day was supposed to be. He just kept taking the ball and moving the chains.
“It wasn’t that tough,” he said when asked how difficult yards were to come by during the ultra-physical game in Jacksonville. “Behind the offensive line, running off their blocks made it easier for me to find holes and get through them.”
“He was running hard,” said quarterback Justin Thomas. “He was coming in as a true freshman, running hard from day one when he stepped on campus. I think it translated over. Guys up front were doing their jobs. They were moving the guys off the line, getting to the ‘backers. It made his job easier.”
The rookie never had day so busy (his previous high for carries had been 19, when he went for his previous career-high of 132 yards on Nov. 5 at North Carolina) although he was kept quite busy throughout the season, recording at least 13 carries in eight of his nine games.
Mills proved throughout his freshman campaign that keeping busy was mutually beneficial for him and the Jackets, as his battering-ram effect — he had only four runs of more than 20 yards all season — proved very productive. Banking on his experience from 2016, It’s the kind of productivity he’s looking forward to building on in 2017 and beyond.
“I learned a lot, playing with these guys, the big boys,” he said. “It’s kind of motivated me going down the line to push harder. I’ve got to go twice as hard [in 2017] as I did this season.”