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The sixth man: Is quarterback Davis Mills the sleeper of this year’s draft?

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On the morning of Davis Mills’ final NFL audition, the sky darkened above Palo Alto, California.

A light drizzle gave way to a full downpour just as the Stanford quarterback began to showcase his arm in front of an array of NFL team scouts and executives.

The ill-timed storm ought to have rattled a kid with plenty to prove after making only 11 starts during a bumpy college career. Mills instead calmly used the deluge to his advantage, showing that he throws as effortlessly in wet weather as he does in sunshine.

Unbothered by slick footballs or slippery footing, Mills completed 50 of 54 passes during a throwing session scripted to highlight his feathery touch, mobility in the pocket and knack for mixing arm angles. It was a reminder of why Mills was once the top-ranked quarterback in the 2017 class, ahead of the likes of Mac Jones, Kellen Mond, Jake Fromm and Tua Tagovailoa.

“The feedback we got was that it was one of the best pro days some of these NFL people had ever seen,” Mills’ private quarterback coach, David Morris, told Yahoo Sports. “The most impressive thing was that he was totally unfazed by being in bad conditions. It was pouring rain, 50-degree weather, and he never looked down at his hand, never asked for a dry ball, never freaked out about a dry towel. He just went through the script.”

The strong pro day suggests that Mills might be the sixth man of this year's heralded quarterback class, the guy to target for quarterback-hungry teams who don't pick high enough to select a member of this draft's five-man top tier. While Mills may not have the generational talent of Trevor Lawrence, the backyard improvisational skills of Zach Wilson or the tantalizing upside of Trey Lance, no other quarterback is more unflappable when adversity strikes.

How did Mills respond to suffering a fluke knee injury just before his senior year of high school? Or to re-injuring it during the state championship game a few months later? He was the one who reassured his coaches that he’d be fine.

What about when injuries and strong competition on the depth chart delayed his ascendance to Stanford’s starting quarterback until deep into his junior season? He resisted suggestions that he should transfer because he was confident he’d eventually win the job.

And when he at last became the full-time starter, how did he react to receiving little support from the run game? Or to playing behind an injury-ravaged offensive line? He never complained and closed his COVID-shortened senior season with four straight victories.

Combine that strong-willed, steady demeanor with Mills’ lively arm and prototypical build, and it’s easy to see why his stock appears to be rising entering the week of the NFL draft. Not only is he projected as a likely second-day draft pick, he could also be the first quarterback taken after the quintet expected to come off the board early in the first round.

“Of course I’m biased, but I think he can be a starter in the NFL,” Stanford quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard told Yahoo Sports. “He has that kind of ceiling. He has to go to a situation where he has time to learn and grow, but he has an attitude where he’s unfazed by anything.”

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports)

‘Quarterbacking came very easily to this guy’

In August 2014, Davis Mills’ private quarterback coach struck up a conversation with Pritchard at a Stanford football camp.

“I’ve got a ninth grader who is the absolute real deal,” Tony Ballard told Pritchard. “I think he will be one of the top quarterbacks in the country and I think you ought to take a serious look at him.”

Mills hadn’t yet grown to be the 6-foot-4, 225-pound prototypical pocket passer that he would later become, but the Georgia native had already flashed early promise. He had played in the Eastbay Youth All-American Bowl as a seventh grader and led the Gwinnett Football League’s eighth-grade team to a national championship the following year.

The first time Pritchard watched Mills throw, he liked him but he wasn’t wowed. Then Mills came to Stanford’s camp the summer after his sophomore season and thoroughly outperformed many of the other quarterbacks the Cardinal were recruiting.

“He just had such a natural feel in the passing game for trajectories, how to change speed, arm angles and all that stuff,” Pritchard said. “He didn’t seem to miss a beat competing against other guys and throwing to receivers that he had never thrown to before. It was very clear that football and quarterbacking came very easily to this guy.”

What Mills achieved at Greater Atlanta Christian High School only further cemented him as Stanford’s top quarterback target. The three-time all-state selection threw for 25 touchdowns and one interception as a junior and 34 touchdowns and one interception as a senior. He also amassed 898 rushing yards and 23 rushing touchdowns in high school.

In Mills’ first varsity season, Greater Atlanta Christian coach Tim Hardy spent a portion of one preseason practice doing 1-on-1 tackling drills. Much to his surprise, Mills was the only player on the team athletic enough to juke future NFL receiver Darius Slayton and safety Micah Abernathy.

“He was making those guys look silly,” Hardy told Yahoo Sports.

Of course, most of Mills’ signature high school moments were a result of his prized arm, not his quick feet.

Late in Mills’ junior season, Greater Atlanta Christian trailed Wesleyan by three points in the final minute of a regional final. Mills converted fourth-and-2 by rolling out and feathering a ball over the outstretched hands of a defender to his fullback in the flat.

“In this moment of moments he puts perfect touch and drops in this ball your 2-year-old daughter could catch,” Hardy marveled.

The very next play, Mills threw a laser of a post pattern into a tight window for a game-winning 44-yard touchdown pass.

“Everyone else would say the second throw is the more impressive throw,” Hardy said. “I think it’s the first one. He has such a great feel for pacing and shaping the ball. The ability to make so many different kinds of throws so well is what makes him special.”

Whatever questions remained about Mills vanished by the end of the 2016 Elite 11 competition. He emerged as Tagovailoa’s toughest competition for MVP honors, eliminating any concerns about the lower-division competition level he had faced in high school and solidifying himself as one of the most promising quarterbacks in his high school class.

When Mills spurned late interest from Georgia and Alabama to commit to Stanford, he seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of Andrew Luck as the Cardinal’s next great quarterback. Little did Mills know his path would be more turbulent than expected.

Stanford quarterback Davis Mills (15) passes the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game between UCLA and Stanford Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Stanford quarterback Davis Mills (15) passes the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game between UCLA and Stanford Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Speed bumps at Stanford

The first sign that Mills’ college career might not go as planned came before he even arrived at Stanford. The heralded quarterback hurt his left knee before his senior season in high school, re-injured it during the first quarter of the state championship game and then suffered another setback during his redshirt freshman season.

It wasn’t until Mills third season at Stanford that he was healthy enough to vie for the program’s starting job. Wearing a bulky brace on his left knee, Mills competed for playing time with returning starter KJ Costello, himself a former highly touted recruit who threw for 29 touchdown passes in 2018.

Costello retained the job to start the 2019 season but suffered a head injury just before halftime of Stanford’s opener. That afforded Mills his first real opportunity, though the redshirt sophomore didn’t exactly run away with the job. He fumbled twice and completed just 7 of 14 passes in the second half of a narrow win over Northwestern. Then he was unremarkable again in a blowout loss to USC.

Other quarterbacks of Mills’ pedigree might have become impatient or frustrated. Mills, on the other hand, remained as confident, focused and even-tempered as ever, coaches say.

“I wanted to play earlier on in college, but I didn’t have the opportunity to,” Mills told reporters after his pro day. “Overcoming that adversity taught me the life lesson of really putting my head down and working hard.”

That mentality finally paid off later in the 2019 season when a thumb injury sidelined Costello once again. This time Mills took advantage and at last established himself. It started with a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance in a victory over Oregon State. Then came another efficient performance in an upset of Washington. Most impressive of all was Mills’ 504 passing yards in a loss to Washington State.

By the end of the 2019 season, it was clear who Stanford’s quarterback of the future was. Costello transferred to Mississippi State to play for Mike Leach. Mills began preparing for his first collegiate season as a team captain and unquestioned starter.

An emphasis for Mills was what Stanford coach David Shaw described as “intentional intensity.” Shaw wanted the never-too-high-or-low Mills to occasionally display more passion or energy in the huddle while still leading within his personality.

While the COVID-19 pandemic meant an atypical offseason and a truncated 2020 season, Mills made the most of Stanford’s six-game schedule. He led the Cardinal to four victories in his five starts, capped by a 428-yard performance in a double-overtime victory at UCLA.

Stanford trailed the Bruins 34-20 with 5:39 remaining after Mills locked onto his primary receiver too long and threw a costly pick-6. It seemed to be a game killer, except Mills never flinched. He responded by throwing two late touchdown passes to force overtime and pave the way for a comeback that mirrored the trajectory of his college career.

“It kind of teaches you that you can never give up,” Mills said.

To stay in college or go pro?

To many observers, Mills’ decision to enter this year’s quarterback-rich NFL draft was somewhat of a surprise.

Even his own quarterback coach admits Mills had a chance to dramatically elevate his stock if he had returned to Stanford, gotten another season of experience as a starter and improved his field vision and ball placement.

“I think most people would tell you he could have been a top-10 pick in next year’s draft if he had come back,” Morris said. “He knew that, but he also felt good about where he was. He’s not a hesitant guy. If he feels something, he’s going to move.”

Aside from finishing his Stanford degree, Mills’ primary focus since the end of the season was his pro day. It was his chance to showcase the array of difficult throws he can make while also addressing concerns about his injury history, mobility and athleticism.

The impressive throwing session in the pouring rain was only part of what made Mills’ pro day a massive success. He also ran the 40-yard dash in unofficial times of 4.58 and 4.66 seconds, better-than-expected times that had even his parents screaming with joy.

“With the shortened season, I wasn’t able to get the sample size of games I wanted on tape,” Mills said. “I thought I played well and had stuff that NFL teams can go back and see, but this day really just allowed them to come out and confirm what they saw. There was pressure there, but I didn’t really feel pressure. I felt confident I could do what I always do.”

How high can Mills’ strong pro day vault him in the draft? No one is quite sure. Some analysts don’t think an NFL team will spend much draft capital on a quarterback with Mills’ injury history, limited mobility and habit of occasionally throwing into heavy coverage. Others argue Mills’ pro day addressed some of those questions and deem him a potential second-round pick.

“What that strong day does is it creates a little more urgency if you want to get Davis Mills,” Morris said. “He may not get out of the first round and if he does, he’s not going to be around for long in the second.

That’s already an optimistic assessment, but Mills even went one step further. Asked after his pro day about what he does as well as the consensus top five quarterbacks in the class, Mills insisted he envisions himself at the same level as Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and all the rest.

“I think I can compete with those guys,” Mills said. “I have confidence in my ability to win games and compete at the next level.”

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