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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: A Closer Look at Dedrick Mills Freshman Season

May 22, 2019
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Dedrick Mills will officially be at Nebraska as planned. That news was good for a collective sigh of relief among Husker fans given Nebraska's uncertain situation at running back.

Derek Peterson did a good job of breaking down why the Mills news is big news. I wanted to go a little deeper into the numbers today.

Mills is important for the Huskers in 2019 largely because he's played this level of football before. As a freshman at Georgia Tech in 2016 he rushed for 771 yards in just nine games. You probably already knew all of that, so let's zoom in a bit.

Mills was the "B-back" in Georgia Tech's flexbone scheme. That means that he was the deepest back in the backfield, i.e. not one of the two wingbacks (called A-backs at GT). You could liken him to a traditional tailback or, if you moved those wingbacks into the backfield in the traditional wishbone, you'd call Mills the fullback. Point is, Mills was most often the dive guy in Paul Johnson's triple option. While the A-backs were the ones who usually received perfectly timed pitches on the edge with nothing but green grass in front of them, Mills was doing a lot of the dirty work between the tackles.

His 2016 stats reflect that role. Mills' opportunity rate––a Football Outsiders measure that attempts to quantify how often the offensive line "does its job" by providing 5 yards of running room––was 43.4%, a little above the national average. His highlight yards––the amount of yards a back gains beyond that first 5––were 3.2 per opportunity, the lowest of the Yellow Jackets' regular backs. And that's all about what you'd expect for the B-back. He's the one that does the mouth smashing in the middle of the field, and it often takes a lot of smash-mouth dives before one of them breaks for a big gain.

The real key for a back like that is durability. Whether he gets the ball on the option dive or not, he's getting tackled every time. He has to be able to hold up and Mills held up pretty well for a true freshman. Fifty-eight percent of his carries in 2016 were in the second halves of games. Of the four games Mills missed in 2016, only one was due to injury (Duke). The other three were suspensions for violating team rules, violations that would eventually get Mills kicked off the team. Johnson said Mills might have been the best player on the team when he was dismissed weeks before the start of his sophomore season.

Nebraska was obviously OK with what it learned about that situation, and it should have a bell-cow back as a result. The comparisons to Devine Ozigbo are somewhat inevitable, so let's go down that path. On 152 carries as a freshman, Mills broke 18 runs for 10-plus yards (11.8%). That's not a huge number, but neither is it a huge surprise given Mills' role in the offense.

Ozigbo had 155 carries in 2018, breaking 29 of them for 10-plus yards (18.7%). But he wasn't always that way. On a similar number of carries (129) the year before, Ozigbo's explosive-run rate was 9.3%. That one-year jump for a back who was often relegated to the role of "between the tackles guy," makes the Mills addition pretty fascinating.

We know he can handle a punishing workload and grind for yards, but what else is out there for him in an offense that should create more opportunity for big gains? We'll see.

Mills' best game as a Yellow Jacket was the 2016 Gator Bowl, a 33-18 win over Kentucky. The Wildcats, playing in their first bowl game since 2010, rolled in with a pair of (wonderfully named) 1,000-yard rushers––Boom Williams and Benny Snell. They combined for 18 carries and 67 yards against Georgia Tech. Mills stole the show, rushing 31 times for 169 yards and touchdown.

You can watch that game, the one-hour version, below. It will give you a good idea of what Mills was being asked to do at the conclusion of his only Power 5 season to date.

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