How a Former 13-Year-Old QB Prodigy Learned It's Better to Receive
- A USC commit at age 13, David SIlls V was molded by attendant parents and private coaching to become the next great Trojans quarterback. But there was a catch.
Take away the pesky detours, and David Sills V wound up where he thought he would. As a 13-year-old he committed to the idea of being a quarterback at a college in Southern California, and that’s exactly what he was 6½ years later.
Sills the seventh-grader had verbally committed to USC, spawning headlines across the country. Sills the college sophomore had just finished a so-so season as the QB1 at El Camino College in Torrance, after a freshman year at West Virginia during which he was moved to receiver. His season at El Camino had generated few headlines and even fewer Division I scholarship offers. With the clock ticking down toward the one-month window when junior college players can sign a national letter of intent and still make it to their new school’s spring practice, Sills had begun considering walk-on possibilities. “At that point,” Sills says, “I just wanted somewhere to go.”
He was sitting on the steps of a friend’s house when his phone rang. On the other end was West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who had brought Sills to Morgantown in 2015 following Lane Kiffin’s ouster at USC. Holgorsen reminded Sills of what he’d told him the previous spring: “You have a home here at receiver because I think you’re an NFL receiver.” In the span of a few seconds Sills put his dying quarterback dreams out of their misery. He told Holgorsen to count him in, and the coach said the paperwork would arrive the next day. “Coach Holgy says I was the easiest recruit he ever had,” says Sills.
The decision came just as easily on a cool February afternoon in 2010. Sills was called out of after-school study hall at Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, Del. His private quarterback coach, Steve Clarkson, had sent Kiffin video of the young signal-caller earlier that week. After being informed the player he watched was a seventh-grader and not a high school junior, an impressed Kiffin broached the idea of a scholarship offer. Not long after, Sills was handed a phone at Red Lion. As he picked up, Sills didn’t know what Clarkson had said to Kiffin a few minutes earlier: “You know we’re both going to go to hell over this one, right?”
Within hours of committing, the news appeared on the crawl at the bottom of ESPN’s broadcasts. Two days later Sills appeared on Good Morning America. “And how big are you?” host Bill Weir asked. “Five-eleven and 135 pounds,” Sills replied. “Five-eleven,” Weir said. “Still growing, obviously.” ABC identified Sills as a “13-year-old quarterback phenom.”
The description wasn’t wrong. Sills’s father, David Sills IV, who runs a construction company in Wilmington, Del., had poured time and money into the Red Lion football program. A financial-aid fund he created drew talented players to the school, making it something of a regional all-star team. His son started on the varsity as an eighth-grader, and in his first two seasons leading the team, he threw for some 3,700 yards and 37 touchdowns as Red Lion went 11–8. Kiffin looked smarter by the day.
But in 2011 the school was purchased by Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the new management had no intention of running a football factory. So the elder Sills helped set up a new program for David and his teammates. The players would use an online curriculum for their studies and play for a team called the Eastern Christian Academy Honey Badgers that was headquartered in Elkton, Md. The school had 46 male students, and all of them were on the football team. The Maryland Public Schools Association initially refused to grant the school accreditation, which caused many of the Honey Badgers’ would-be opponents to drop them from their schedules. The younger Sills and his teammates played only three games in ’12, which also was the year ESPN.com called Sills “the football version of pop star Justin Bieber.”
Eastern Christian played a full schedule the following year, going 9–3 against mostly out-of-state powerhouses, but a 41–40 loss to St. Edward of Lakewood, Ohio, on Nov. 2 altered the quarterback’s destiny. Honey Badgers coach Dwayne Thomas marveled at Sills’s toughness that night. He broke a knuckle in his throwing hand but finished the game. He went on to play the rest of the season, but according to Clarkson the adjustments Sills made to play through the injury wrecked the mechanics that had made him so promising. “It changed everything,” says Clarkson. “As a young kid, he had some of the best mechanics I’d ever seen.”
In June 2014, Sills decommitted from USC. Kiffin had been fired the previous fall. New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian said he would honor the offer to Sills, but USC already had a commitment from five-star slinger Ricky Town, and offensive coordinator Clay Helton was closing in on a commitment from a four-star recruit from San Clemente named Sam Darnold.
As a senior, Sills had a chance to pivot away from the drop-back pocket passer he’d been groomed to be. He wanted to showcase the dual-threat speedster he’d become, but a broken ankle in the third game of the season, at DeSoto (Texas) High, squelched his chance to prove he was better suited for the spread offenses that had proliferated since his commitment to USC. Fortunately Holgorsen had seen a healthy Sills while recruiting Eastern Christian tailback Wendell Smallwood and receiver Daikiel Shorts. “That kid is a football player,” Holgorsen remembers thinking. “We aren’t going to offer him as the only quarterback in the class. But I want that kid on the team.” Sills accepted, becoming one of two quarterbacks in the class and one of four who would compete for the starting job for the 2015 season.
Sills enrolled early, and as the first game approached, he was indeed playing quarterback. After finishing fourth in the race for starter, he stepped into the role of Georgia Southern’s Favian Upshaw for the scout team. The following week West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson decided Chris Chugonov—the other freshman QB—would run the scout team. Impressed by Sills’s athleticism during his week imitating Georgia Southern’s option quarterback, Gibson asked him to play receiver. Sills continued catching passes for the scout team for the next few games. Each week Gibson’s reports to Holgorsen glowed brighter.
With no training as a receiver, Sills routinely bested West Virginia’s starting defensive backs, a group that included a future first-round pick, safety Karl Joseph, and a future third-rounder, cornerback Daryl Worley. “David just kept making play after play after play,” says Gibson, who gladly would have turned Sills into a safety. But Holgorsen needed to bolster a depleted receiving corps. He approached Sills before the Week 7 game against Oklahoma State and asked if he’d like to suit up as a receiver, but Sills declined. After watching the game—and figuring out how to tell his dad—Sills agreed to play receiver against Baylor the following week.
In his first college game Sills snagged a touchdown, and he finished the year with seven catches for 131 yards. In the final game of the season, the 2016 Cactus Bowl against Arizona State, he caught an out, spun to avoid the sideline, bounced off a tackler and scored the winning touchdown. After Sills presented his mother, Denise, with the game ball, a reporter from WSAZ-TV approached. “You can’t believe it,” Denise told the station's viewers. “I just remember him when he was a little baby, and now he’s this kid catching footballs.” Then she paused a beat. “And he’s a quarterback.”
But he wasn’t. Not anymore. He just hadn’t realized it yet.
In spring practice Sills played both quarterback and receiver, but he felt his dream drifting away. When the spring session ended, he met with Holgorsen and explained that he had to try one more time. Clarkson had hooked him up with first-year El Camino coach Gifford Lindheim, who promised Sills nothing more than an opportunity to win the job. Holgorsen told Sills he’d always be welcome back in Morgantown. Sills said thanks and left, sure he’d never return.
Lindheim knew the USC story. Everyone in football did. Would Sills be some pampered star who expected everything handed to him? “Nobody outworked him,” Lindheim says. “Nobody smiled more. The guys got behind him rather quickly because he led by example.” Sills might have had more success as El Camino’s quarterback had he run more, but he was determined to play from the pocket. He wound up throwing for 1,636 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games.
As he looked to move back to the FBS, no coach promised him he’d play quarterback. They’d seen what he’d done at West Virginia, and they knew players in the Power 5 conferences rarely contribute as true freshmen at an unfamiliar position. Sills the athlete was far more intriguing than Sills the quarterback.
As the juco signing period neared, Sills had to choose a path. He could admit his quarterback days were over and move ahead or he could stew over what might have been. Holgorsen’s call forced a decision.
It turns out Sills was still growing when he went on GMA. He's now 6' 4" and 203 pounds (much, much taller than Bieber). And while the rest of West Virginia eagerly awaits the debut of Florida transfer Will Grier at quarterback, the Mountaineers coaching staff is abuzz about the possibilities of Grier throwing to Sills—who can play three of West Virginia’s four receiver positions. He can burn corners on the outside. He can catch balls in traffic over the middle. He loves to block on the perimeter. And now he’s all in at the position. “He was never going to commit to being a great receiver if he was still hung up on playing quarterback,” says Holgorsen.
Holgorsen wouldn’t have asked Sills back if he thought he was bitter about the end of his quarterback career or disappointed at not playing at USC. Sills was neither: He didn’t divorce his parents or turn on his QB guru. Sills’s father has no unkind words for Kiffin and doesn’t regret a penny he spent trying to turn his son into a star under center. They all remain friends with Clarkson, who still sees greatness in David’s future. “He never, ever saw the glass as half empty,” Clarkson says. “He always saw it as an opportunity to make a bad situation great.” David’s older sister Emma wound up using her brother’s example to inspire her during her time as a golfer at Delaware. “He didn’t let it affect him,” she says. “He didn't let it mess him up. It didn’t make him quit the sport. I look up to that.”
Asked if he has any advice for the 13-year-old version of himself, Sills shakes his head. “I don’t look at any of what happened as a mistake,” he says. Sills IV agrees: “For David, it worked out O.K. And it helped out a lot of friends.” From 2013 to ’16, 11 other Eastern Christian Academy players signed with Power 5 schools. Many of them might have gotten scholarships anyway, but the early interest in Sills opened the eyes of more college coaches.
The younger Sills is glad he gave QB one last shot at El Camino because it made him realize his future lies in catching passes. “I gave it everything I had,” Sills says of his quarterbacking days. “I don’t have to look back when I’m 30 and regret anything. I got all of it out of my system.” The last guy to coach Sills as a quarterback believes the onetime phenom will just be getting started at 30. “Far after football you’ll be talking about David Sills,” Lindheim says. “It’ll be an asterisk that he was offered at 13 years old.”