This spring, Georgia Tech B-back Dedrick Mills said he’s under instructions to share practice repetitions with his backups. Mills said this week that coach Paul Johnson has told him that for every two snaps he takes, he should take one off to give reserves KirVonte Benson and Quaide Weimerskirch more practice time.
“I respect what he’s doing, but to me, I like to take all my reps,” Mills said. “Even when he tells me not to get in, I still get in anyways.”
Not following Johnson’s instructions generally is not a wise course for a Tech player. Still, Mills’ desire to not miss a turn speaks to his zeal to compete and part of the reason why Johnson is so optimistic about him going into his sophomore season.
“He’s a worker,” Johnson said last week. “He’s always striving to get better, and he wants to be as good as he can be, I think.”
In his first season on campus, Mills was a difference-making player at the position that drives Tech’s option offense. A starter from the season opener, Mills ran 152 times for 771 yards, 5.1 yards per carry and 85.7 yards per game. He ran for 12 touchdowns, tied for third most in the country among freshmen. The preponderance of scoring runs showed a nose for the end zone and the willingness to create and withstand collisions to obtain the toughest yards on the field.
“Last year, I had that wide-eyed (feeling), like, wow, this is really happening,” Mills said. “Now it’s like, I’m here, I’m in the game, focused. I pretty much know a whole lot more than I knew last year. So when coach calls plays, I just go down and run it, and I can run it faster probably than what I did last year.”
Mills’ value to the offense can be stated by considering how Johnson has used other B-backs previously. The 12 rushing touchdowns tied with Jonathan Dwyer in 2008 for the second most by a B-back in a season; Dwyer scored 14 rushing touchdowns in 2009. His 16.9 carries per game were the second most for a B-back in a season behind Anthony Allen in 2010.
“When the game starts and you start playing, that’s when he kind of comes to the forefront,” Johnson said. “Definitely, he can get better, like everybody else, but I’m excited about him. I think he’s got a bright future.”
Mills’ importance figures to increase this season. Last season, he was playing with a dynamic three-year starter at quarterback in Justin Thomas and had the 2015 leading rusher, Marcus Marshall, backing him up. This fall, the quarterback, most likely Matthew Jordan, will be a new starter. With Marshall having transferred to James Madison, Benson and Weimerskirch, who have one career carry between them, are competing this spring for the No. 2 job.
Mills also expressed a desire to become a team leader, a role that is suited for the position, given its centrality to the team’s success.
“He’s a guy that has always led by example with the way he plays,” new quarterbacks and B-backs coach Craig Candeto said. “I think when you’re a good player, guys will want to follow you naturally. I think the thing that he’s talking about is not only on the field, but off the field. Making sure that he’s taking care of everything — his academics, going to class, things like that.”
Candeto said that he has talked with Mills about leading in that manner and the importance of handling his business in all facets of his life, not just football.
“Because guys aren’t going to listen to somebody that’s not walking the walk, and I think he understands that,” Candeto said.
It is a considerable step for Mills, who last season was suspended twice for a total of three games for violating team rules. He clearly has Johnson’s support, but will have to walk a narrow road through the remainder of his time at Tech. Mills sounded ready to do that.
“The stuff that happened last year, that really wasn’t me,” Mills said. “That’s freshman mentality. Now that I’m here, I’m grown up, learning new things, being around the players and letting them teach me a lot of stuff. It’s just a new me now.”