David Sills: Moving On To A Different Dream
By Greg Hunter
It’s hard to give up a dream. To accept the fact that something you wanted so badly, something you worked and strained for most of your life simply was not going to happen.
For David Sills V, reality hit him squarely in the face late last fall. He had seemingly been destined to be a high profile quarterback all of his life. On Feb. 5, 2010, at the tender age of 13, Sills was extended a scholarship offer by then USC coach Lane Kiffin, and young David quickly accepted. His path seemedperfectly charted. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.
Before Sills was even a high school freshman, Kiffin was fired at USC, and the young QB protégé was left looking for a new college. There were plenty of suitors, as Michigan, Maryland, Boston College, Clemson, Virginia Tech and many others extended offers, but ultimately the product of Eastern Christian Academy in Elkton, Md., decided to follow a couple of his high school buddies, Wendell Smallwood and Daikiel Shorts, to West Virginia, enrolling at WVU in January of 2015.
Sills immediately set about trying to become the Mountaineers’ quarterback, though he faced plenty of competition with the likes of Skyler Howard, William Crest and Chris Chugunov also looking for playing time behind center at West Virginia. A true freshman, Sills was locked securely on the sideline through the first five games and was headed for a redshirt when some impressive scout team work as a wide receiver in practice got the WVU coaches thinking of a new path for the youngster. With injuries leaving West Virginia’s receiving corps very thin headed to Baylor in week six, then Mountaineer receiver coach Lonnie Galloway asked Sills if he would be interested in seeing action catching passes rather than throwing them, at least for the short term. Always a team-first guy, Sills agreed to help in any way he could. He wound up catching two passes for 64 yards, including a 35-yard TD, that day in Waco. David played in seven of WVU’s final eight games in the 2015 season, registering a total of seven receptions for 131 yards and two TDs. His last catch was his biggest, as he hauled in 15-yard scoring strike from Howard with 2:19 remaining in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, giving West Virginia 43-42 lead – and eventually a victory – over Arizona State.
Sills stuck with the Mountaineers through the following spring, hoping to earn time at quarterback. But when it became apparent that Howard and Chugunov were cemented in front of him on the QB depth chart, and Florida-transfer Will Grier was likely the future face of the position, Sills decided to try to fulfill his signalcalling dreams elsewhere.
“We appreciate everything David has done for the Mountaineer football program,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said at the time. “He has done everything asked of him and has been a great teammate.
“He has decided to transfer to pursue his dream of playing quarterback in college,” added Holgorsen. “We wish him nothing but the best in all of his future endeavors on and off the field.”
Sills landed at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., where he did get a chance to play quarterback. He started all 10 games at QB for the Warriors last fall, leading them to a 4-6 record in the very competitive Cali juco circuit.
“When I was considering going to junior college, I had a lot of talks with my parents and my friends, and I thought about it hard,” explained Sills. “It was really something I needed to do for myself.
“When I left, I had a talk with Coach Holgorsen and also with my teammates. They all wished me the best of luck. I left on great terms with Coach Holgorsen. We really left on a good relationship. I really liked it here, but I wasn’t ready to give up my dream of being a quarterback yet.”
His numbers at ECC were solid, as he completed 127-of-238 passes (53.4 percent) for 1,636 yards and 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 10 games, while also rushing for 258 yards and five TDs on 96 attempts.
But his juco performance didn’t attract a lot of major college attention. Ball State was the lone FBS program to offer him as a quarterback.
“Coming from a great program like West Virginia, I wanted to stay at a high level,” admitted Sills.
“My quarterback coach (Steve Clarkson) talked to me after the season and asked me if I thought I could play receiver at a high level. I told him I had been an OK receiver when I was at West Virginia, and I didn’t really work on it much, because most of my time was spent concentrating on being a quarterback. So Coach Clarkson was like, maybe we need to explore the receiver route. And then he started to put the word out that I would be open to playing receiver. At the same time, my high school coach and my dad talked to Coach Holgorsen, who told them, ‘He can come back here today.’ Boise State also had some interest, but it was going into a dead period, so we really didn’t have much time to talk. UCLA also showed some interest, but when Coach Holgorsen called, I knew it was God telling me I needed to go back to West Virginia and play receiver. So, I took that and ran with it, and I’m happy to be back.”
Giving up his dream doesn’t seem to be causing Sills much angst, at least not now. If he hadn’t given quarterback one last try at the junior college level, though, he may have always wondered, “What if?”
“I didn’t want to be 35 and wonder what might have happened if I had just tried,” noted the business major.
“Going to junior college, I was able to get the quarterback thoughts out of my mind. I don’t have to regret anything. If I had stayed here and hadn’t tried junior college, maybe I would have regretted the fact that I hadn’t given quarterback everything I had.”
Signing with the Mountaineers last December, Sills returned to WVU in January and immediately went to work as a receiver. Gone from West Virginia for barely seven months, there were still plenty of familiar faces, though both of his Eastern Christian connects were gone, as Smallwood left for the NFL after the 2015 season and Shorts was a senior in 2016.
“I was here last spring when David was still here,” noted West Virginia’s second-year receiver coach Tyrone Carrier. “I begged him to become a receiver full time. But he wanted to be a quarterback, and I understand everyone has a dream.
“Now it’s good having him back. He provides instant leadership. Our guys all love him. I don’t know why,” Carrier chuckled, “but they do.”
Sills brings a quarterback approach to being a receiver, which is a good thing, explained WVU’s first-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
“He has a starting quarterback mentality in the receiver room,” said Spavital, who also recently returned to West Virginia after spending three years at Texas A&M and one at Cal. “I love his work ethic. He’s always here getting better. He takes notes, which you don’t see very often with a lot of kids. He studies at night, and then he comes in here during the day and gets extra work in. I think that rubs off on the entire unit.”
Sills is now fully committed to being a receiver. Though he had shown flashes of potential at that position in a handful of games in 2015, he’s spent most of his life concentrating on throwing passes, not catching them. This is the first spring he’s ever focused exclusively being a receiver.
“But coming back, being able to just concentrate on wide receiver has been good,” Sills stated. “Coach Carrier has been working with me ever since I got back. He’s doing a great job coaching me and the rest of the guys.
“Before I’d go to the quarterback room and then also play a little wide receiver. Now I’m studying being a wide receiver, watching film, learning technique and all that. That’s helped me a lot, I think, in my progress as a receiver. I’m giving my all at it now. I’m focusing on the culture of being a receiver.”
Sills claims he was a better athlete in high school than most people realized. He ran for nearly 70 yards a game in his senior season at Eastern Christian, though his year ended prematurely after breaking his ankle in week three.
“I was kind of an athletic quarterback, even though all the recruiting services listed me as a pocket passer,” recalled Sills. “My high school coach always told me I was a duel-threat guy, and they even used me on defense at times to help in coverage. So I always thought of myself as a pretty good athlete, even though other people may not have seen that.
“I was always friends with Daikiel and Wendell growing up, so when they were doing drills, even if they were running back drills or receiver drills like ladder drills or things like that, I always did them too,” he added. “I was already doing receiver drills even before I had the intention of playing receiver, so I could be more athletic and getting better and faster and stronger. I didn’t really know I would ultimately play receiver, and I’m still pretty new to it, so obviously I still have a long ways to go. I’m going out there every day trying to improve.”
Sills realizes he is still very raw when it comes to the fundamentals of playing receiver. The spring has helped, but that’s just 15 practice sessions. He knows he needs a lot more work.
“Before when I played receiver, I played too high. So I have to work on getting my pad level down,” Sills explained. “I also need to understand how to manipulate defenders; make them think you’re going one way and then go the other way. That’s very important for a receiver. I’m also working on fighting off defenders, keeping them from getting their hands on me. Coach Carrier has been doing a great job of teaching all of the receivers how to do that. I feel like I’ve gotten better in all those areas this spring, but I still have a long ways to go.”
At 6-foot-3, 201 pounds, Sills is the second tallest pass catcher on West Virginia’s roster, behind only another juco transfer, 6-foot-5, 210-pound Dominique Maiden. That size, combined with above-average athleticism and a quarterback’s feel for the game, can make Sills a special weapon.
“In terms of his ability as a receiver, he’s always someone who is going to be precise and run the right route and be in the right spot,” noted Spavital. “Obviously he’s tall with long arms, and that gives him a range to catch balls that may not be perfectly thrown. He’s consistently in the right spot and doing what he’s supposed to do, and that typically gets you on the field. I’ve been very impressed with him.”
When Sills was at West Virginia before, he played outside receiver. But he spent most of this spring at inside receiver, which has a few different assignments, especially when it comes to blocking.
“When you play inside, you usually are taking on bigger bodies, blocking linebackers or safeties rather than cornerbacks like you do outside,” Sills stated. “So, that’s different. Your routes also are a little different inside. We have little more leniency on the depth of our routes based on ‘backers and things like that. But playing receiver is the same in most aspects. When the ball gets thrown to you, you make the catch. We’re all competing, and when the ball is in our hands, we have to make plays with it. We are all pushing each other. We’re all trying to make this a better team.
“All the quarterbacks are hard working,” added Sills, who grew up in Bear, Delaware, which is just south of Wilmington. “Coach Spav’ is doing great with the transition. The offense is a little different now, but he’s been great working with the quarterbacks and also the receivers. We’re all creating a very strong relationship, which I think is very important. We have a lot of timing down already.”
That chemistry with his quarterbacks was evident in the WVU spring game, as Sills hauled in a game-high six passes for 96 yards.
From coast to coast and position to position, Sills’ career has had more plot twists than “Star Wars.” But he’s accepted his fate, seemingly content that his days as a quarterback are now behind him and his future is as a receiver.
“It’s been kind of a weird story, but I do feel like it’s a fresh start,” said Sills, who now even wears a different number then he did previously with the Mountaineers, having switched from No. 15 to No. 13. “I’m very happy with where I am, and I’m ready to keep working.
“Nobody treated me differently when I came back. They treated the same as if I never left. And I think I came back with pretty much the same mindset, if not better. I just want to compete and contribute to the team. Now I’m doing it with a clear mind at wide receiver.
“I’m ecstatic to be back,” concluded the youngest of Denise and David (IV) Sills’ three children. “I love West Virginia and everything about it. I’m ready to work.”