There is no longer a question about who the face of the Georgia Tech offense will be next year. He wears No. 26 and answers to the name of Dedrick Mills.
Mills finished his freshman season with his strongest effort yet and will enter the 2017 season with high expectations. He could be the strong, durable B-back the program has been seeking since Jonathan Dwyer finished his career in 2008.
“I think he can be a very special player,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “He’s a very talented young man.”
Mills pounded the ball 31 times for 168 yards — both career highs — and scored a touchdown in the Yellow Jackets’ 33-18 win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl. A year ago, he helped lead Ware County to the GHSA semifinals. Now, he’s the MVP of a bowl game.
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“I think he was running hard,” quarterback Justin Thomas said. “He was coming in as a true freshman, running hard from day one when he stepped on campus.”
Mills finished the season with 152 carries for 770 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. His yardage total likely would have been closer to 1,000 yards had he not missed three games due to suspensions and another with a concussion.
“We’ve got to try to help him grow up,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, you know, at that age, when you’re 18, we all didn’t make great decisions. It’s our job to help him make the right decisions because he’s got a bright future if he’s continue to work hard.”
Biggest holes to replace: On offense it will be quarterback Thomas and center Freddie Burden. The two are the only seniors who start on that side, and each will leave a big hole to fill, particularly Thomas, who seemed born to run Johnson’s spread option attack. Thomas said he will try to play at the next level, although the odds are against him.
On the defensive side, the Yellow Jackets will have to replace four starters, the most valuable being defensive tackle Pat Gamble and linebacker P.J. Davis. Gamble was the heart of the team, the player who always played hurt and drew the respect of his teammates. Davis has been the team’s best tackler for three season, someone who seemed to come up with a big play when needed, as he did in the bowl game when he returned a fumble 38 yards for a touchdown.
The special teams will take a hit, as well. Place-kicker Harrison Butker was underrated throughout the conference because the Yellow Jackets didn’t ask him to kick a ton of field goals. But when he was needed, Butker always seemed to have the clutch kick — just ask Georgia fans from 2014. Butker kicked a career-high four field goals against Kentucky, a program bowl record, and finished with a program-record 337 career points.
Waiting for their moment: Mills has plenty of teammates ready to step up and help the Yellow Jackets make a run at the ACC Coastal Division title in 2017.
The offensive line returns everyone except Burden. Left guard Parker Braun has All-America ability, and the others all have much needed experience in the system. Depth is an issue with receivers, but Ricky Jeune and Brad Stewart are reliable and occasionally dramatic. A-back is loaded, starting with the uber-productive Clinton Lynch.
The defense will start with a deep, experienced secondary that knows how to make plays, and Brant Mitchell is solid at middle linebacker. The question may be upfront, where KeShun Freeman and Antonio Simmons are expected to lead the way.
The turnaround season: The 9-3 record marked a six-win improvement from a last year. It was the program’s 11th nine-win season in the past 60 years, and four of them have come in Johnson’s nine seasons as head coach. The season included three wins over teams from the SEC.
“Our first season, we went out on a high note, had a great season,” Thomas said “Last year, it was horrible. It was something you wouldn’t want to experience. So just coming out, our class regrouping, getting the guys together, to come out of the season we had this year, I think it was a great turnaround, a great finish to our career.”
Gamble said, “Start off 3-3, wind up winning six of the last seven. I mean, it couldn’t end in a better way for us. Coming to a prestigious bowl, bring a win. Something to remember definitely for the rest of your life.”
Toe meets leather?: Can’t wait for next season? The Yellow Jackets will open up on Monday, Sept. 4, against Tennessee at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The two old rivals (coaching legend Bobby Dodd was a Tennessee man) haven’t played since 1987. The Volunteers lead the all-time series 24-17-2.