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Cameron Smith

Eighth grade QB starts high school career in ESPN spotlight

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It's not every day that ESPN cameras crowd in to cover a high school football game for a small, private school in Delaware. Then again, it's not every day that the most highly touted eighth-grade quarterback in history starts his first high school game before he's even in high school.

That's the life that David Sills finds himself in, an early teen existence where his every move is scrutinized after he committed to USC as a seventh grader last spring. The precocious Red Lion Christian Academy (Del.) eighth grader completed 10 of 14 pass attempts, finishing with 164 yards without a touchdown ... and more importantly, without an interception. His teammates helped ease the pressure on him in the team's opener as the Lions rolled past Smyrna (Del.) High School, 35-9. Sills will start again Friday night when Red Lion Christian visits Interboro (Del.) in suburban Philadelphia.

"I was a little nervous at first, but toward the end of the first quarter my nerves started to settle down," Sills told DelawareOnline.com. "I thank God for this game. I didn't play my best but I did pretty good. Got to fix up a few things, and hopefully, step it up next week."

Sills was successful in his first career start largely by avoiding controversial decisions, yet the fact Sills is generating such attention is a huge controversy in itself. There's no chance ESPN would be stalking the Red Lion sidelines if Sills hadn't committed to USC last spring as a seventh grader. And that USC offer only came because of his work with renowned quarterbacks coach Steve Clarkson, who worked with past preteen phenoms like Jimmy Clausen, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart, current USC starter Matt Barkley and Ohio State Heisman candidate Tyrelle Pryor.

Clarkson himself anointed Sills as the best pre-high school quarterback he'd worked with, a recommendation which clearly played a key role in inspiring USC coach Lane Kiffin's scholarship offer to the then 13-year-old Sills last spring.

"His skill set is off the chart," Clarkson told ESPN Los Angeles. "I've never seen anyone at his age do what he's been able to do. He's already six feet as a 13-year-old. And he's breaking down NFL footage."

In fact, Clarkson's pitch to Kiffin went much further than that, as he told ESPN.

"You might call me crazy, but you've known me a long time, right? And when I said if there was going to be a LeBron James of football it'd be Jimmy Clausen that turned out to be a pretty good prediction.

"And when I said Matt Barkley had the potential to be as good as Jimmy, he ended up winning Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior and starting at USC as a freshman, right?

"Well, I've got a kid now who is better than all of them and he's in Delaware. You gotta take a look at him." [...]

"He was like, 'This kid is incredible. How old is he again?'

"I was like, 'That's the problem, he's 13.'"

Sills' age didn't deter Kiffin, and it hasn't deterred Red Lion from starting him at the Lions' most significant position as an eighth grader. In fact, Red Lion was only allowed to start the 6-foot-1, 180-pound passer on a technicality, because middle school students share the same school building as Red Lion's high school students.

The opening sequences of Sills' first game seemed to indicate just how much pressure the young quarterback is under. His first pass was an inauspicious attempt that slipped out of his hand, and his second was knocked down at the line of scrimmage by a 6-foot-3 defender. He settled down shortly thereafter, but his early jitters and the whispers they inevitably provoked were telling.

Those conditions alone warrant serious discussion and consideration. Yet for the time being, Sills' high school coach remains supremely confident in his young passer's ability, and his program's decision to start him as an eighth grader.

"David was a little jittery at the start but he settled down," Red Lion coach Eric Day told DelewareOnline.com. "The best thing about it was, as the game went along, he started seeing things. ... There's very few plays that are one-option plays, so he's checking protection, setting which way we're running. I was very pleased."

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