Tuesday July 21st, 2015

The college football recruiting cycle has accelerated to the point that offers extended in grade school are not treated as extraordinary events. From class of 2017 quarterback Tate Martell to class of 2019 athlete Owen Pappoe and many others, it’s not hard to find instances of players handed scholarships before they played a down of high school football.

But the practice was not always so commonplace, not when David Sills first appeared on the recruiting radar. In February 2010, Sills, then a seventh grade quarterback, garnered widespread attention when he issued a verbal commitment to USC. The news sparked concern over the future of college football recruiting and even led some observers to call for rule changes.

In the ensuing years, Sills has been mentioned almost exclusively in relation to his former prodigy status and commitment to the Trojans. In reality, his story is far more complex than the coverage of—and commentary surrounding—his recruitment suggests.

More than five years from the day he generated national headlines, Sills is finally set to begin his college football career, but at West Virginia—not USC.


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To understand Sills’ story, it’s important to know the circumstances surrounding the USC scholarship offer and his subsequent commitment.

According to Sills’ father, David Sills IV, Sills had shown promise as a quarterback at camps before he turned 10 years old. The elder Sills said he arranged for his son to begin working with Steve Clarkson, one of the most esteemed quarterback coaches in the country, after learning about Clarkson in a newspaper article. Sills impressed the QB coach with his understanding of the position. Clarkson recalls Sills breaking down NFL games and diagramming routes. “It was really an impressive sight to see, [for] essentially a 11-year-old kid to do this,” Clarkson says.

After working with Sills for multiple years, Clarkson was pleased with how Sills had developed, but he wanted an objective assessment of the then-13-year-old from someone he trusted. Clarkson sent Kiffin—who had recently left Tennessee to become USC’s coach—a link to some film of Sills. Kiffin was intrigued by what he saw and inquired about Sills’ age. When Clarkson informed Kiffin that Sills was 13, he recalls Kiffin responding, “Get the F out of here.” About 20 minutes later, Clarkson says, Kiffin called him back to inform him that he would offer Sills a scholarship.

Kiffin’s decision came after Clarkson teased him about another high-profile coach, Urban Meyer, beating Kiffin to first offer a scholarship to one of Clarkson’s other clients, Max Wittek. Clarkson remembers ribbing Kiffin—who had called out Meyer over a different recruit while Kiffin was at Tennessee—about the then-Florida coach's recruitment of Wittek, a standout at California powerhouse Mater Dei High. “I called up Lane to say that, ‘Urban is still basically kicking your ass,’” Clarkson says. (Wittek ultimately played two seasons at USC before transferring to Hawaii last summer.)

Alabama, where Kiffin now serves as the offensive coordinator, declined to make him available for an interview.

During his time working out with Clarkson in California, Sills had become familiar with USC and its campus. His father said they attended Trojans practices and even went into the team room when Pete Carroll was the program’s coach. Clarkson recalls Sills working out with some of his other clients who played quarterback at USC. “He liked [USC], but I think that he liked it really because he spent time in L.A. and was around it so often,” the elder Sills says. After discussing the scholarship offer with his family, David decided to accept it.

“Other people don’t, like, like the commitment at a young age, but I just think it’s for the best right now,” Sills said in a previous interview explaining his decision (West Virginia declined to make Sills available for this story because of the program’s media policy regarding freshmen). “I mean it does put a target on my back when I’m playing, but I’m just going to go out there and do what I can do, so I think I’ll be alright.”

News of Sills’ commitment was met with widespread disapproval. Commentators were compelled to question whether recruiting had spiraled out of control and pointed to Sills’ situation as evidence that the system needed to be reformed. At the same time, Sills was cast as a prodigious quarterback with future-top-draft-pick talent. “You know, a lot of people thought it was crazy at the time,” says Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com.

A few years after Sills’ commitment, it became apparent that Kiffin would not coach him at USC. The Trojans fired Kiffin in September 2013, five games into his fourth season at the school, and promoted defensive line coach Ed Oregeron to replace Kiffin on an interim basis. That December USC hired former Trojans offensive coordinator and Washington coach Steve Sarkisian to take over the program. Sills remained committed to the Trojans, but he needed to gel with the new coaching staff.

Sills’ father explained that after his son met with Sarkisian during a visit to Los Angeles, he relayed that he wasn’t sure whether USC was the right place for him. The elder Sills recalls Sarkisian indicating he would honor USC’s scholarship offer to Sills, but “we got a very distinct feeling that wasn’t his first option.” The Trojans had been pursuing other quarterbacks in the class of 2015 and would eventually sign two four-star passers (Sam Darnold and Ricky Town).

In June 2014, Sills officially decommitted from USC. “I think they want to go a different direction, so I want to go in a different direction,” Sills’ father remembers him saying. Sarkisian declined to be interviewed for this story through a USC spokesperson.

Gary Bogdon for Sports Illustrated

Even though Sills had been committed to USC since the seventh grade, he was being recruited by and had drawn scholarship offers from several other programs. But his father and his high school coach, Dwayne Thomas, say they believe Sills’ early commitment depressed the level of interest he received. “When you’re committed [to USC], I don’t think a lot of colleges think they can come up against USC,” Thomas says.

Still, Sills had developed an “extremely strong” relationship with West Virginia, his father says. The Mountaineers were appealing in part because of the presence of two of Sills’ high school teammates (wide receiver Daikiel Shorts Jr. and running back Wendell Smallwood) and Sills’ fit in coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense. Less than a month after Sills reopened his recruitment, Clarkson announced on social media that Sills intended to join the Mountaineers.

By that point, however, Sills was no longer considered one of the top quarterbacks in his class. Other signal callers had developed more quickly than he did in high school and earned higher marks from recruiting services. Farrell says Sills, who is currently listed as a four-star prospect on Rivals.com, displayed good field vision and decision-making and was adept at completing short passes, all qualities that helped him excel in 7-on-7 events. But Farrell added that Sills’ arm strength did not improve as much as expected.

Sills also likely suffered because of circumstances beyond his control. An August 2012 Sports Illustrated story revealed that the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association had not sanctioned Sills’ high school, Eastern Christian Academy, for competition. After the story was published, opponents canceled games against Eastern Christian, and the school—which SI branded “High School’s virtual powerhouse”—was left with only three contests that season.

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Meanwhile, Sills underwent what Clarkson calls a “whole changing dynamic.” When he began working with Clarkson at a young age, Sills was viewed as a pro-style quarterback. By the time Kiffin was fired from USC, Sills had begun to transition into a dual threat, Clarkson says.

Recruiting websites still classify Sills as a pro-style quarterback, but Holgorsen commended him for his mobility this spring. “David Sills may be the most athletic [quarterback] we have,” Holgorsen said in March. After he enrolled at West Virginia in January for the spring semester, Sills joins two other freshmen (fellow early enrollee Chris Chugunov and redshirt William Crest Jr.) in a quarterback competition that is currently led by junior Skyler Howard.

While it’s unclear whether Sills will earn any playing time this season, longtime observers are optimistic that he will excel with the Mountaineers. Says Farrell, “To me, in that offense especially, West Virginia—a shotgun offense, spread quickly, where he can do everything he needs to do, which is be accurate on intermediate throws, see the field, and matriculate down the field and use the speed of his receivers to gain extra yardage after the catch—it’s perfect for him.”

Holgorsen declined an interview request through a West Virginia spokesperson.


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To this point, the story of David Sills has been defined by what other people have said about him. At various times over the last five years he has been the next big thing, everything that’s wrong with college football recruiting and a major disappointment.

With time to reflect on all that has transpired since his son committed to USC, Sills’ father says he does not think the timing of Sills’ recruiting process negatively affected him in any way. “I honestly did not see any change in him whatsoever,” the elder Sills says. “I think, maybe, it matured him a little bit in how to deal with media and that type of thing. And I’d say he’s very savvy in being able to deal with that. But I would say it didn’t change him at all.”

When Sills takes the field for the Mountaineers, whether this fall or in a future season, he’ll finally have a chance to seize control of his own narrative. The “kid who committed to USC as a seventh grader” will stop being defined by his pledge to the Trojans. More than half a decade since he first declared his collegiate intentions, he will finally be a college quarterback.

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