Oct. 4, 2016
PREVIEW – Football at Pitt (Saturday at 12:30 p.m.)
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Something changes in Dedrick Mills when the goal line nears, although it’s not entirely clear what it is about Georgia Tech’s freshman B-back that keeps leading him into the end zone.
Maybe his eyes get a little bigger or perhaps he squints. Adrenaline kicks in or he calms down. His purpose becomes more clear or he’s more reckless.
“My mindset changes,” he said. “When we get in the red zone, I know it’s time for me to run the ball. I’ve got to go harder.”
Whatever is going on, it works for the Yellow Jackets.
Mills scored all three touchdowns for Georgia Tech last Saturday against Miami to earn ACC Rookie of the Week honors for the second time. He scored three touchdowns against Vanderbilt, too, in first landing the award. Oh, and he scored the game winner with mere seconds left in Tech’s season-opening win over Boston College.
At 5-10, 217 pounds, Mills won’t blow you away upon first sight. He doesn’t look that heavy up close, actually, and given that he usually wears a smile, there’s little reason to believe that once he pads up, he’d be quite a battering ram.
Five games into the season, however, there’s evidence aplenty.
After rushing for a career-high 99 yards against the Hurricanes and banking touchdown runs of seven yards and one to go along with a nine-yard scoring reception, he leads the Jackets in rushing with 300 yards, and in scoring with seven TDs. This has come despite him missing one game while suspended for a violation of team rules.
“He likes to play,” head coach Paul Johnson said Monday evening on his weekly radio show. “He runs hard and he’s a hard guy to get down.”
There’s no doubt Mills loves to play.
From the time he began playing in fifth grade while growing up in Waycross, Ga., he had a nose for the game. He did a little of everything, and well.
“I never played flag, just tackle. I’ve always been kind of a rough-house person,” he said. “Running back, linebacker, some quarterback. I kicked some, was a punter. They used to give me the ball all the time and I’d just go.”
Tech began recruiting Mills early, when he was a freshman, and safeties coach/recruiting coordinator Andy McCollum started hanging around.
“I first got recruited as a linebacker by Coach Mac my ninth-grade year,” he said. “Then I started running the ball more in high school and they preferred me at B-back.”
Although he played primarily wing back in Ware County High School’s Wing T offense, Mills has slid comfortably into the B-back spot at Tech. He was more noted for his linebacking skills up to his senior year, when he registered 96 tackles with 11 for lost yardage, an interception and three forced fumbles.
He also rushed for 1,211 yards and 22 touchdowns and demonstrated a knack for getting up field in a hurry.
Mills isn’t one to wiggle much. He’s what coaches call a downhill runner and he’s getting better by the week.
“I think he’s seeing things quicker than he did Week One,” said B-backs coach Bryan Cook. “He’s always been a pretty aggressive kid running the ball. I think his tracks have gotten more consistent. He was a little inconsistent with his footwork and some of those things have cleaned themselves up.”
The game has slowed down for Mills. He’s following his linemen more often rather than simply blasting into holes that may or may not be there.
“I’m way better [than at the beginning of the season],” he said. “Now, I see blocks a whole lot better; I’m more disciplined with my eyes. I wasn’t really reading anything.”
Mills is ambitious, seeking to become the first member of his family to graduate from college. He has an older brother, Kenny, in the Navy, two younger brothers and a younger cousin, Nikki Mills, who lives with his mother and grandparents.
With a whole lot of college football ahead of him, he’s already something of a hero in Waycross. When he returned to his hometown a couple weeks ago the day after Georgia Tech played Clemson on a Thursday night, he visited a local elementary school upon an invitation from a former teacher.
He was a big hit with the kids and, truth be told, he’d like to do some more hitting from the linebacker spot. Might he one day be a two-way player?
“I prefer to run the ball but don’t get me wrong, I’d like to hit somebody, too,” he said with an especially big grin. “Someday hopefully, I’ll get good enough at running back that they’ll put me on defense, too. It wouldn’t bother me.”