That’s big news for Mills — who spent his summer working hard in the classroom, hitting the books to meet the necessary GPA requirement — and it’s big news for running backs coach Ryan Held and it’s big news for the Husker offense in 2019.
With Maurice Washington’s status up in the air (and work still to be done in the weight room and on the practice field), the Huskers were down one reliable option in the backfield. After a spring period in which the biggest riser was redshirt freshman walk-on in Brody Belt, it was looking more and more likely Nebraska would be in a position of reliance on three late-to-arrive (relatively speaking) running backs, two of them true freshmen.
Rahmir Johnson gets on campus in June. Ronald Thompkins is coming back from knee surgery. Getting Mills admitted to the university so he could join the team for summer workouts really was a must for Held’s room.
A one-time Georgia Tech runner, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back had 771 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman in the ACC in 2016. He averaged 5.1 yards a carry to lead the Yellow Jackets and earn the conference’s Freshman of the Year honor as well as a spot on the Freshman All-American team.
After a dismissal from the team before his sophomore season, Mills found his way to Garden City (Kan.) Community College, where he once again ran wild. This past season, Mills rushed for 1,358 yards and 19 touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry. Mills’ former coach, Jeff Sims, told Hail Varsity back in January that the Huskers were getting one of the best he’s coached.
“What makes him a special back is the same thing that made Lavonte David a great football player," Sims said. "He loves football. He loves it on Tuesday, he loves it on Saturday, he loves it at practice and he loves it during games. That’s what makes him different. We could put a highlight film of him up where he doesn’t carry the ball. The block he made this weekend so our other back could run 75 yards, the pancake he had on the punt block team where he destroyed the guy on the shield. He doesn’t care what you have him play, he goes as hard as he possibly can. God made him as a football player. He is tremendous.
"How will he do in the Big Ten? He will be an impact player that fits in just fine. Just like Jermarcus Hardrick, Brandon Kinnie, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Lavonte David. We’ve had four All-American tailbacks and he’s as good as any running back I’ve ever seen. He’s an elite football player.”
Mills has a physicality about him that you just can’t teach. He’s a natural running back.
More than anything, he’s an assurance for Held.
When Mills’ situation appeared up in the air, a backfield that had as good a one-two punch in the conference last season looked like it could be facing a massive step back. Devine Ozigbo — a 1,000-yard rusher last year — is off to the NFL, and no one truly knows what Washington’s availability will be for the start of the season.
It’s possible quarterback Adrian Martinez becomes a bigger factor in the run game as a sophomore (he had 629 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last year… so he was already kind of a big deal), but you don’t want your prized quarterback having to run against Big Ten defenses 15-20 times a game. Marcus Mariota was around nine during his Heisman season at Oregon but he wasn’t the team’s main runner; Martinez being that for Nebraska will feel like playing with fire.
This means Wan’Dale Robinson can primarily play the Duck-R spot — the spot Nebraska sees as providing him the best opportunity to do damage. This means Rahmir Johnson doesn’t have to rush (no pun intended). This means Thompkins can likely take a redshirt. This means Mills, the one who seems most suited to play Big Ten bruiser ball right away, will get first crack at doing so.
Mills will arrive Wednesday. That gives him almost the entirety of summer workouts to both get in Zach Duval-approved football shape and start building chemistry with his teammates. Held had regular check-ins with all three of his incoming runners throughout the spring, and Mills has had the Husker playbook for some time. It’s not being overzealous to expect him to hit the ground running (pun intended this time).
He was No. 5 on Greg’s Guys for a reason. He’s not a kid with baggage, but a kid with immense potential who worked hard to put himself in a position to realize that potential.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.