It happens all the time that highly touted recruits don’t pan out. Sometimes it’s a talent issue, sometimes work ethic, sometimes injuries. Who knows. When Stanford signed five-star recruit Davis Mills in 2017, the top quarterback in his class, they thought they were bringing in a talent that would lead them into the national spotlight.
Knee injuries derailed the development of the top quarterback in the country, but as he showed at his Pro Day, Mills has the raw tools and the poise to develop into a solid option. Right now, he’s in a quagmire of a backfield in Houston, with the uncertainty of Deshaun Watsom looming over it all. However, with the addition of Mills in the draft, Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Finley in free agency, and signing Jeff Driskel yesterday, Houston appears to be signaling that the days of Watson as the face of their franchise are in the past, and Mills might be that signal.
Mills has a long injury history. In August 2016, before his senior season of high school could get underway, he injured his knee “doing something stupid,” as his head coach, Tim Hardy, said at the time. Originally it was thought that Mills would miss up to four months because of the injury, but instead of having surgery, he opted to play through it and sat sidelined for only the first two games of the season. In his final high school game, the Georgia state championship, Mills reinjured his knee.
Stanford head coach David Shaw was there.
“I was at his state championship game where he initially got hurt,” Shaw said. “We didn’t expect him to come and start as a freshman. As devastating as it was, we knew, ‘OK, we didn’t plan on playing him, so he’s going to redshirt, he’s going to rehab, we know it’s going to be great.’”
Just as he was finishing his freshman year of rehab and recovery, he reinjured the same knee.
“Then the second injury was the one that was really hard. I remember going up to Davis and saying, ‘Man I feel so bad for you, I know you just worked really hard to get back healthy and now you’re going to be, surgery, and rehab again,’ and he said, ‘Coach, I already been through it once, I’ll go through it again,’” Shaw said.
After stepping in as the starting quarterback in 2019, Mills finally had his shot. He threw for 1,960 yards to the tune of a 65.6 completion percentage, with 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Through a wild 2020 pandemic-riddled season, Mills continued his performance. In five games, he added 1,508 yards, a 66.2 completion percentage, with 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
It was a roller-coaster collegiate career, and his injury is one that should not be completely ignored, but when he decided to declare for the NFL draft, he felt that he was ready.
“Ultimately, what it boiled down to was I felt I put enough on tape this past season to go to the next level,” Mills said. “I graduated. There weren’t many things holding me back at Stanford other than the hypothetical question of, ‘If you play another year you might be the top quarterback off the board or a guaranteed first-rounder.’ But when I was weighing that out, there was still a lot of uncertainty with the COVID situation. Stanford was still pretty much on lockdown. We didn’t know if we’d have an offseason. I just felt like my best option was declaring.”
At the Stanford Pro Day this spring, Mills put on a show, impressing the NFL personnel in attendance. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, showcasing good athleticism. Then came the throwing session: On a 50-degree day, through wind and rain, he completed 50 of 54 pass attempts in his throwing session.
“He crushed it from the testing numbers that we got, and I thought it was a clean, really pure throwing session that he put on in the rain. The day could not have gone any better for Davis Mills,” NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah said.
Mills’ former teammates and coaches alike will rave about his arm talent and his leadership. Shaw and former Stanford receiver Simi Fehoko both have told tales of Mills being able to throw more than 70 yards with ease, with Shaw going so far as to say that Mills will be “in the upper 20 percent of arm strength” in the league when he gets to the NFL.
Mills, whom they used their third-round draft pick on (the first pick they had), has a battle in front of him, but that’s nothing new. He’s been overcoming adversity for years now. If Watson is indeed no longer in the plans, Mills could claw his way to the top of the depth chart. The talent and potential is there — he just needs to realize it.