Mills hopes position change extends his football life
Garrett Mills might have been an All-American tight end at Tulsa, but he will have to learn to be a fullback to get a shot in the NFL, writes Ivan Maisel.
MOBILE, Ala. -- Tulsa tight end Garrett Mills might be an All-American, but his career as a tight end is over. He understands.
"There's not a large market for 6-foot-1, 240-pound tight ends when you got one like Marcedes," Mills said, referring to his South teammate in the Senior Bowl, Marcedes Lewis of UCLA. "What can you do?"
"A while back, they told me if I wanted to come as a fullback, I could come," Mills said after practice Tuesday. "I was gung-ho. I'd come as a kicker."
Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe didn't blink at that suggestion.
"He probably could [kick] if they asked him," Kragthorpe said Tuesday while recruiting in Stillwater, Okla. "I'd bet you a dollar."
Kragthorpe's arrival at Tulsa three years ago made Mills into one of the most prolific receivers in the nation. Mills lined up as a tight end, as a slot receiver and even, on occasion, as a fullback. Defenses struggled to keep up.
"Bob Stoops called me to recommend a coach," said Kragthorpe, who is in the market for some assistants. "He spent 30 seconds on the coach and five minutes talking about Mills. He said, 'We still haven't covered the guy.'"
Mills caught 13 passes for 152 yards against the Sooners, who rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Golden Hurricane, 31-15.
"They were trying to cover him with a bunch of different combinations," Kragthorpe said. "One of the things we did was motion him out of the backfield and [have him] run an option route. It was like neighborhood football: 'Go to the manhole cover, cut right.'"
That's easier said than done, as Kragthorpe explained.
"We could do a lot of different things with him," Kragthorpe said. "You could make some pretty drastic changes in the course of the game. He not only could take the changes from the meeting room to the practice field, he could take them from the sideline to the next series. That's pretty unusual, especially when you're doing it against defenses like Fresno State and Oklahoma."
Some players are just football-smart. Mills has proven his intelligence on and off the field. He won one of eight Division I-A National Football Foundation postgraduate scholarships. He wants to use the $18,000 grant to pursue an MBA -- someday. He intends to make it in the NFL.
His first step comes this week, when Mills is being asked to adjust to a new position, with new teammates, against the best college football players in the nation. The advice that Mills received from his position coach on the South team, 49ers running back coach Bishop Harris, strayed into technique but came back to a simple thought: "Just hit it hard."
"I know the big question on me is whether I could throw it in there or not," Mills said, referring not to the ball, but his body. "If I hit the hole as hard as I can, there's nothing else I can do."
After two days of practice, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan, who's running the South team, is pleased with Mills' ability, as he said in jargon, "to fit up on a linebacker." That means "block."
"Everybody knows he can catch the ball," Nolan said. "[The position is] new to him. Lining up, he looks good. I hear Bishop saying, 'Heels at 5 yards.' [Mills] has to get used to how far he is from the line of scrimmage. As a tight end, you don't worry about that."
Nolan said he thinks Mills can make the switch to fullback or to H-back, which the 49ers coach called "a pseudo tight end." Mills will also play special teams for the South, which former Ravens running back coach Matt Simon thinks will be the key to Mills' NFL career.
"If you can't play lights-out special teams, you can't stick around," said Simon, who resigned this month from the Baltimore staff after seven seasons. "Fullbacks get worn down. Their life span isn't very long. The guys who stand the test of time are the guys who can make plays, help you on special teams and develop into a fullback. They are underestimated, but in this league, you can't win championships without them. Mills will come out of this deal, and seven or eight years from now, you're watching him in the Super Bowl."
That MBA might be a long time coming.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.