One year ago, Dedrick Mills entered preseason camp at Georgia Tech as a freshman plying for playing time at B-back with Marcus Marshall.
Adjustments didn’t come easily for Mills. In fact, he thinks the two incoming freshmen at his position this year — Jerry Howard and Jordan Ponchez-Mason — have started off much better than he did.
“They’re really doing pretty good,” Mills said after Wednesday’s practice. “But they’ve got a long way to go. They’re kind of starting off like I did when I first got here and not knowing really what to do. But they’re doing better than what I did because they actually know which way to go. After Coach told me which way to go … and I still went the wrong way.”
Mills turned things around quickly enough to convince coach Paul Johnson he deserved to start as a freshman in the team’s opening game against Boston College. Even with Marshall returning off a solid season, Mills jumped ahead of him and impressed overseas in Ireland.
But Mills’ first season wasn’t always smooth sailing. He missed three games because of suspension for violation of team rules. Still, he continued to earn his way back into the rotation at B-back despite a rocky season off the field.
Mills is ready to move forward from what happened.
“I’m not going to reminisce on the past. … We’re starting something new,” he said. “Of course, that’s always a goal to not get kicked off the field. You always want to be on the field. You never want to get taken off. … I’m going to keep myself on the field this year.”
In his time off, Mills said he began to eat poorly. Playing at around 220 pounds his freshman season, he reached 245 pounds during the spring, which allowed Johnson the chance to dig at Mills before getting his weight down. Johnson started calling him “Big Chub,” while he called J.J. Green, who has also cut down his weight, “Little Chub.”
“You know Coach wasn’t having that,” Mills said. “So the two weeks we had before camp, I really took that time to try to drop that weight before it was time for camp. So I knew once we got out there, that I could move faster and easier.”
Mills said the weight loss has him feeling much better going into the season.
“I feel a big difference,” he said. “Like today’s little run … I felt wide open, like nobody could come get me. I feel faster and I move a whole lot better. And I don’t have to hear Coach Johnson (mess) with me about how big I am.”
Craig Candeto, the quarterbacks and B-backs coach, knows exactly what he and Mills will be working on during his sophomore season.
“He said it to me before practice today: consistency,” Candeto said. “Dedrick is as talented as anybody out there, but we just need for him to be more consistent in every phase of the game. He’s a guy that wants that. It’s never been an issue of wanting to do it. He wants to be great and I’m going to push him to be great.”
Leading the team in rushing and touchdowns despite playing only nine games, Mills made a name for himself in 2016. Campus Insiders named him honorable-mention freshman All-America, after Mills finished near the top in all freshman running back stats.
The Maxwell Football Club recently named Mills to the Maxwell Award watch list.
“It made me feel good that I was honored and recognized for that,” Mills said. “But at the same time, I’ve got to go out there and show why they chose me for that. Since they gave me all that hype, I’ve got to show them that hype.”
Mills is making sure not to get complacent in the preseason just because he’s now firmly set as a starter at B-back. With two talented freshmen behind him, Mills knows he has to keep working hard to stay in the position he put himself in last year.
“I still feel like I’ve got to compete,” he said. “I’ve still got people that are trying to get my job. So, I’ve got to go just as hard as them, if not harder. I’m still trying to keep the job so I’ve got to work harder than them. That’s pretty much how I look at it.”
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com