Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets B-back Dedrick Mills (26) was twice named ACC rookie of the week last season. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Breaking down the Jackets: B-back

Of the various reasons that Georgia Tech has to be optimistic about the 2017 season, the B-back position is high on the list. As a freshman in 2016, Dedrick Mills won the job in the preseason and, at least on the field, was everything that coach Paul Johnson could have wanted.

Mills ran the ball low to the ground with tackle-breaking power. He was a relentless force near the goal line. He excelled at two of the primary job descriptions of the position – hold onto the ball and move it forward. According to ESPN, only 5.9 percent of Mills’ 152 carries went for zero or negative yards, the lowest rate among power-conference backs in 2016. He fumbled just three times.

“Dedrick Mills would be a good football player in any offense, I think,” Johnson said recently at the ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C.

Mills finished the season with a team-high 771 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, playing in nine games and starting seven. The touchdown total tied for third nationally among freshmen.

Further, Mills will run behind an offensive line that brings back four of five starters.

It’s with good reason that he was named preseason All-ACC and also to the watch lists for the Doak Walker Award (top running back) and the Maxwell Award (player of the year). The Yellow Jackets’ most likely path to the ACC Championship game includes Mills and expected starting quarterback Matthew Jordan forming a punishing interior running tandem.

The question marks are behind him on the depth chart, with a quartet of inexperienced backs vying to be the No. 2 behind Mills.

First team after spring: Dedrick Mills, sophomore.

Notable reserves: KirVonte Benson, sophomore, Quaide Weimerskirch, sophomore.

On the way: Jerry Howard, freshman, Jordan Ponchez-Mason, freshman.

Analysis: With the starting job secured and in good hands, the primary question of the preseason camp at the position will be who Mills’ top backup will be. Consider this: Starting in 2011, because of either injuries or other reasons, there has been only one season in which a B-back has started every game of the season. (David Sims, 2013)

The pairing of Mills and Marcus Marshall would have been quite a luxury, but Marshall chose to transfer at the end of last season, landing at James Madison.

Mills missed four games for two unrelated suspensions and a concussion. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he missed a game this season. In that case, Johnson will find himself filling the primary running-back spot with a player who has, at most, one career carry.

Of the four contenders, Jerry Howard and Jordan Ponchez-Mason are incoming freshmen. Benson and Weimerskirch both played seven games last season as redshirt freshmen, largely in special-teams roles. Weimerskirch got one carry, a fumble.

Johnson limited Mills’ reps in the spring to give Benson and Weimerskirch a chance to gain experience, and both showed potential.

Howard and Ponchez-Mason, both highly productive backs in high school, will get a chance, too. It’s possible Ponchez-Mason could move to A-back.

Factoid: In high school, Mills worked at a funeral home in his hometown of Waycross in South Georgia.

Statistic: Mills’ average of 85.7 rushing yards per game, while it did not meet NCAA requirements to be ranked by per-game status, was fifth highest in the ACC last year.

Prediction: Barring injury, Mills will clear 1,000 rushing yards and be named All-ACC. The likely winner of the backup competition is Benson.

The series continues Wednesday with a preview of the quarterback position.

The series so far:

Part 1: Wide receiver

Part 2: Offensive line

Part 3: A-back

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