Picture Davis Mills dancing to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” celebrating an undefeated football season.
This is not a dream, a hallucination or a prediction. It’s now-senior quarterback Mills, as an eight-year-old, going undefeated in a championship GFL season.
Pretty much since he picked up a football at age six, Mills has excelled at the game. His dad, Steve Mills, would call sports “games” as a reminder that the intention is to have fun. That has never been a problem for Mills. As a kid, he tried tennis like his two older sisters, karate, soccer and T-ball, but he fell in love with football.
In sixth grade, Mills was already going to Football University (FBU) camps, where he first caught the eye of quarterback coach Tony Ballard. After playing quarterback at Florida A&M, Ballard began his career in Tampa training young quarterbacks and developing an intuitive sense for evaluating potential. When he moved to Atlanta, one of the first quarterbacks Ballard noticed was Mills. While the skills were there, Ballard was most impressed by who the future Stanford signal caller was as a person.
By the seventh grade, Mills was getting private coaching from Ballard.
Only two years later, Ballard was on a visit to Stanford with his quarterback. He was talking to quarterback coach Tavita Pritchard ’09 and pitching the idea of his quarterback in a Cardinal uniform.
Only Ballard did not have Mills with him. Logan Byrd, who eventually committed to play at UNC, was Ballard’s client on the visit. Still, the quarterback coach was painting a picture of Mills as the future starter — while Mills was in the ninth grade.
“Tony, the kid is in the ninth grade,” Pritchard said.
“Pritchard, I’m going to tell you right now, this kid is going to play for you one day,” Ballard responded.
Eventually, Ballard admitted that offering, or even considering, a quarterback in the ninth grade was out of the box for what Stanford typically does. At the time, Mills stood 5 feet, 10 inches. Still, Ballard told Pritchard: “this kid is going to be special.”
Pritchard saw for himself during a visit to Georgia to see Mills play in spring ball at the end of his sophomore year. The Stanford coach liked what was on display, but it was not until Mills came out to a Stanford camp in the summer that the coaching staff “fell in love” as Mills shined with his play.
That is exactly what Mills’ high school head coach at Greater Atlanta Christian, Tim Hardy, would have predicted.
“If you watch him for five minutes, you’re really going to like him,” Hardy would say during the recruiting process. “If you watch him for two days you’re going to love him.”
Mills had the academics and football IQ, and the growth spurt followed soon after. Ballard remembers Steve Mills telling his son if he gets an offer from Stanford University, “you just don’t turn that down.” Soon after Stanford offered, Mills, by then a 6-foot-3-inch high school junior, committed.
Despite coming into Stanford as the top-rated quarterback in his class, Mills expected to redshirt. He was a bit banged up, there was a quarterback in front of him, K.J. Costello ’19, and redshirting is often the expectation for Stanford quarterbacks.
In 2017, that is exactly what happened. In 2018, Costello held on to the job and set school records. Mills saw the field once, coming on for two series while Stanford led UC Davis 27-3. In 2019, Costello came back in search of a Rose Bowl.
Instead, a litany of Cardinal players, including Costello, succumbed to injuries last season. Rewarded for his patience, Mills received an opportunity to start.
Through eight games and six starts, Mills won the job, and Costello transferred to Mississippi State.
“Once I had my opportunity I was able to take advantage of it,” Mills said.
Of the final six games, Stanford lost all but one — a homecoming game that Costello played the whole way through. Still, Mills made history, throwing for a school-record 504 yards in a heartbreaking loss on the road against Washington State.
Ballard was in North Carolina with three other quarterbacks when he ended up begging the people in Buffalo Wild Wings to put the game on at 11 p.m.
“I’ve been around thousands of kids over the last 20 years,” Ballard said. “I’ve never seen anybody throw a more catchable ball.”
Ballard rates performances like these as a yellow light — when a quarterback shows a flash of their potential. That same potential is why Mills is now the Cardinal’s starter.
In his senior season, Mills is at the helm of a team in turbulent waters. A 4-8 season to conclude the most successful decade in Stanford football history had many inside and outside of the program declaring the end of the Cardinal’s reign. On the outside, people pointed to the 11 players that used their ability to transfer as a graduate student as evidence of cracks within the team. On the inside, the team validated many of those critiques with its new covenant, which says “it’s like a new era of Stanford football.”
As Stanford was attempting to work through kinks in the offseason, the pandemic struck midway through the spring season. In place of a Cardinal vs. White game, Mills was home in Georgia.
At the beginning of July, Stanford football players began reporting to campus for their normal summer training in a very non-normal situation. By Aug. 11, the season was canceled and postponed until the new year. On Sept. 24, the season was reinstated.
“When [the other players on the team] see someone out there in a leadership role who’s calm and can really attack the hectic environments, I think it plays a big role in keeping everyone focused and doing the same,” Mills said.
While he was referencing the chaos of a college football game, Mills just as well could have been talking about the past year.
David Shaw ’95 has said in the past that out of his quarterback room, Mills reminds him the most of himself. Shaw also speaks often of a philosophy of radical acceptance. Throughout the many twists and turns of the offseason, Shaw was a steady figure.
Mills has done the same.
“I have nothing to do and can’t control any of the uncontrollables, so I’m just taking everything one step at a time,” Mills said. “That, I guess, mirrors my football play. I like to go out on the field and play fast and just react to what happens around me.”
Unable to control the choices of the defense, Mills is content to sit back and attack the weaknesses of the other team. Viewing the pandemic with the same mindset, he has waited for opportunities to come available and has attacked them fully. His parents, Steve and Dawn Mills, instilled him with that frame of mind, the same one that was on display in his first conversations with Ballard, and then again as he was entering his final year of high school football.
Maturity Through Adversity
Mills had already established himself as a five-star recruit and one of the top quarterbacks in a class that also had Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm, both of whom are now in the NFL. Before his senior high school season, however, Mills suffered what was then expected to be a season-ending injury.
“It’s OK, Coach,” Mills said to Hardy, his high school coach.
“It wasn’t fake,” Hardy told 247Sports. “Just really even-keeled. In that moment he basically controlled what he could control and tried to make the most of it. I’d say our coaching staff, including me, did not take that approach. It was the 17-year-old.”
In fact, Mills ended up missing just a few weeks. The team reached the state championship game, and Mills was again hurt. That injury and others kept Mills from being completely healthy for the beginning of his Stanford tenure.
“The average kid probably would have quit by now,” Ballard said. “[Mills] has handled every adversity that has ever come his way.”
On top of that, Costello was in front of him on the depth chart. For two years and heading into the third, Costello played ahead of Mills — who learned, waited and worked.
“I always had the mindset that I wanted to be the starting QB and the only way to do that was to outwork all my competition,” Mills said.
Stanford’s quarterback, by his own admission, is not a rah rah, cheerleader type. He is not a talker. From listening to Ballard, it is clear that the two share a common belief: a quarterback should never be too high or too low. Mills will say he feels the most comfortable when he’s relaxed and confident, and his Stanford coaches have taken notice.
“I’ll put it this way, sometimes I have to encourage [Mills] to show a little bit of emotion,” Pritchard said. “He is as steady as they come.”
Pritchard, who is heading into his third season as offensive coordinator since being promoted before Mills’ sophomore year, has seen the team look to Mills as a steady source of energy. In this wild season, Mills is the perfect person to be leading the charge.
A Daily Test
With the 4-8 season hanging over their shoulders like a boulder-sized chip, Mills and the Cardinal will look to turn the page on last year’s disappointment. For the program, it was the first losing season since 2008. For Mills, it was the worst record he’s had playing football since he started at age six.
While the season was disastrous, the constant injuries allowed for young players to gain valuable experience. A total of 20 true freshmen played in at least one game, with 12 using a season of eligibility by appearing in more than four games. Nowhere was that more noticeable than on the offensive line, where three freshmen started in the season finale.
With just 370 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown returning from running backs, all eyes will be on the aerial attack and Mills for the upcoming season. The passing offense built rapport over the summer when Mills flew to Los Angeles in June to work out with the Southern California contingent of Stanford receivers. Senior Osiris St. Brown, juniors Brycen Tremayne and Mike Wilson and freshmen Bryce Farrell and John Humphreys made up the receivers. After almost two years in Brazil on an LDS mission, freshman quarterback Tanner McKee joined Mills to quarterback the workouts.
Before the season was reinstated, Stanford sent its players home, like other Pac-12 schools on the quarter system. Shaw explained that his team worked hard in the summer to prepare for a regular start date, continued pushing for the delayed start date and by the time the season was canceled, needed a break.
Even as the season continues, teammates can opt out at any time. Senior left tackle Walker Little and senior cornerback Paulson Adebo have opted out to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft. Seniors safety Stuart Head and defensive end Dylan Boles announced their intention to sit out and transfer as well.
Nevertheless, the personal goals have not changed for Mills. In March, he told 247Sports he still believes he is the best quarterback from his recruiting class.
“I just haven’t had the opportunity to show myself on a national level yet,” he said. “That’s not me being cocky or anything. That’s just having confidence in myself based on what I’ve been able to do out here. I’m excited for what I can do this season. I’m going to put my head down and get to work.”
As a team, the internal expectations are lofty.
“I would hope that we won’t fall short of another Pac-12 championship and then if everything plays out right, a shot at the Rose Bowl,” he said. “I’ve talked to coach Shaw about it — we could have a record breaking offense with all the weapons we have on the outside and in the backfield.”
The Cardinal will begin preseason practices today at Woodside High School for a unprecedented seven-game all-conference season, a journey that officially opens on Nov. 7 at Autzen Stadium against No. 12 Oregon.
As for Mills, the Stanford quarterback now prefers celebrating with “C-House” to “Crank That.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jibriel Taha at jtaha ‘at’ stanford.edu.