It’s a well-known fact that sportswriters are usually a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but now and again, they even can recognize a telltale sign.
“Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson isn’t one to sing the praises of a freshman before the season,” said Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But with (Dedrick) Mills he said in August that he was going to challenge and get some time, so right then that got our attention.”
Challenge he did as the 6-foot, 200-pound Mills ended up starting seven games and leading the team in rushing and touchdowns from the B-back position, or the tailback in Johnson’s run-heavy triple option offense for the Yellow Jackets.
While Mills was listed as a freshman in the media guide, he tended to look older being a weight room warrior and he played like an upperclassmen as well in 2016. A few attributes that had the Georgia Tech faithful looking ahead and thinking this bruising running back had no ceiling.
“His knack for making plays was unusual for a true freshman,” said Yahoo Sports and Rivals Georgia Tech writer Jared Halus. “The way he did it is what separated Mills from others; speed, determination and extraordinary power allowed Mills to flourish early in Atlanta.
Because everything in the universe has a Nebraska football correlation, often times College Football Hall of Famer Tommie Frazier is called the ideal quarterback for Coach Tom Osborne’s unique offense.
Likewise, Mills was close to the ideal B-back in Johnson’s pounding, physical and no-frills rushing offense. A ex-teammate and someone who garnered All-ACC accolades had some high praise for him.
“Dedrick is such a hard-nosed runner that he will always fall forward in a pile, never giving ground,” said center Freddie Burden. “Obviously he is not Marshawn Lynch, but he is similar in that one guy never brings him down.”
The fact he had such a fast start shouldn’t be too surprising as the Waycross, Ga., native was an early enrollee and had offers from most of the ACC and SEC schools. In his first spring in Atlanta, he began to get reps with the top units and he blended in with his style and work ethic.
Burden, a leader on the offense also said in-between practices early on, the veteran defenders were talking about how hard he ran the ball, almost telling each other be careful as you don’t want to get embarrassed by the youngster, or trucked by a freshman.
“From the start he was perfect fit for Georgia Tech as hard-nosed kids thrive in Johnson’s system.” Sugiura said. “Now there might be some guys faster than him, but Mills is the guy they keep giving the ball to and just pounding the defense and wearing the other team down.”
Wearing down the other team down is just what happened in the Yellow Jackets’ season opener in 2016 played in Dublin, Ireland versus Boston College. Georgia Tech was largely held in check in the fourth quarter and was down 14-7 late when a FG pulled them within four points.
Also, Mills fumbled early in the second half and felt he need to atone for that as the Yellow Jackets got one last shot with the clock winding down. He scored from four yards out with 35 seconds remaining to cap a comeback win. He led all GT rushers with 68 yards, but he was mostly glad he made a big play after the gaffe.
“I kind of got down but Justin (Fields) kept coming back up to me and saying ’Hey man, you’ve got to forget that last play,” Mills said after the game to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I just had to finish the play.”
For the rest of the year, Mills went on to get the most carries in Johnson’s system, however, small signs of getting in his own way began to pop up. He overslept for a practice and tested positive for marijuana. He missed a game as a consequence, but in the end, it may not have had the needed impact.
Georgia Tech ended up facing Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference in a bowl game. Much of the pre-game talk from Kentucky centered around playing in the SEC and they could handle a strong rushing offense.
However, like many found out, the physical nature of Georgia Teach with its repeated execution and precision makes defenders less willingly to fly to the ball as the game wears on. Three or four yards runs in the first half become seven or eight yards with a few long runs mixed in the third and fourth quarters.
“In the bowl game, he hammered Kentucky,” Sugiura said. “Carry after carry, he showed he was just a physical guy and he got stronger as the game went on.”
Stronger as the game went on to the tune of a career-high with 169 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown in a 33-18 win in a contest that really wasn’t that close. Chants of “ACC” rained down mocking the Wildcats of the SEC but that would be Mills’ last taste of a D1 game for a while.
In August of 2017, a failed test meant Johnson had no option but to dismiss him from the team. The exact term from GT was that Mills had violated athletic-department policy.
He landed at Garden City Junior College and he had hopes of getting out early by loading up on credits. However, he broke a collarbone early in 2017 and did not get off to a fast start in the classroom with physical woes.
A few major setbacks in rapid succession had Mills pondering quitting football he told Huskers.com, “I almost gave up, thinking I wasn’t ever going to make it back.”
But family pushed him through rehab as colleges began to show interest in the Georgina native and give him a second chance. Nebraska was the first school to offer and was the frontrunner in a short recruiting process that netted him many P5 offers.
However, to get to Lincoln, he would need to again show the ability that made him a multiple time ACC Player of The Week and come through in the classroom.
Mission accomplished on the gridiron as in 2018 at Garden City he rushed for 135 yards a game at almost six yards a carry and received numerous national JC awards. But it came down to the wire academically with getting all the hurdles cleared and finally enrolled at Nebraska in late May of 2019.
Even though he has only practiced a few weeks at NU, Mills is making an impression on the team. And making one with those that count the most.
”When we go with our power stuff and it’s more downhill, the pile is going that way when he hits it,” NU Running Back Coach Ryan Held told Huskers.com. “He’s probably one of the best backs I’ve had, in four years at the places I’ve been, of hitting it downhill.”
He will get that “downhill” opportunity early as on the first depth chart released on Aug. 26 ahead of the first game versus South Alabama, he was listed as a co-starter with Maurice Washington.
Mills has two years to play as a Cornhusker and he only need one to become a Yellow Jacket fan favorite.
“If you ask Georgia Tech fans about Dedrick Mills, they will all likely tell you the same thing - they didn’t get enough of him,” Halus said. “Though his time in Atlanta was short-lived, there was no absence of memories created by Mills.”
Husker fans are hoping for the same type of bruising and lasting physical memories with Mills, but with an ending of smiles and rings.