The buzz word on Notre Dame defensive lineman Rylie Mills these days is “freak”. Mills picked up the moniker last week when The Athletic's Bruce Feldman released his annual list of college football “freak” athletes.
Mills showed up at No. 56 on Feldman’s list (teammates Cam Hart and Lorenzo Styles were 38 and 79, respectively). Here’s what Feldman had to say about Mills:
“The 6-5, 292-pound former high school discus thrower and shot putter is a player to watch. Mills, who had three sacks in 2021, is really strong, having benched 420 this offseason, but also moves very well, clocking 19 mph on the GPS. Mills’ explosiveness also is reflected in his hang clean peak output of 2828 and his power clean peak output of 2,854 — both totals are higher than his super freaky linemate Isaiah Foskey (2,674, 2,696, respectively).”
For his part, Mills didn’t even know there was such a list, let alone that he was on it. His dad told him about it.
“I didn’t really know what it was and then I kind of did a little research on it,” Mills said. “I thought it was cool. I really appreciate the praise from Coach (Matt) Balis. I’m glad that my hard work is paying off and it’s being noticed, but I’ve just got to keep my head down. It’s easy to say someone’s really good at one thing (but) you don’t want to get complacent.”
Mills moves into his junior season at Notre Dame after a solid showing on the defensive line in 2021. He tallied 16 tackles with three sacks and three tackles for loss, while playing both defensive end and tackle.
After the departure of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, the Lake Bluff, Ill. native is the presumed No. 1 strong side defensive end in new defensive coordinator Al Golden’s defense, but Mills expects to continue to play both inside and outside this season.
"(Defensive Line) Coach (Al Washington) will say I’m a flex guy,” Mills said after a recent fall camp practice. “The great thing is I can play any position, so it just depends where they want me to play on the snap. I’ll play three, I’ll play five (or) I’ll play zero (techniques). I’ll play safety if you guys really want me to.”
Mills was a defensive end in high school, but he wasn’t promised that position when he came to Notre Dame. Former defensive line coach Mike Elston told Mills he saw him in the mold of former Irish lineman and first round NFL Draft pick Jerry Tillery, who also played both tackle and end. As his career has progressed, Mills has continued to see the importance of his versatility.
“I’ve always been told that I can do more than one thing,” Mills said. “What (Al) Golden really preaches is, especially when you get to the next level, versatility is everything. So, I just want to be someone that can do multiple roles, because when you get to the next level it’s great if you can do one job good, but if you can to multiple jobs, that’s almost invaluable. “
Like so many veterans of the Irish defense, Mills has seen his share of coaches in his time at Notre Dame. Washington is his second position coach and Golden is his third defensive coordinator in as many years.
The biggest constant all five of those coaches have is their attention to teaching the details. Mills has gathered those details from them and uses them to improve every day.
He spends time after practice working on things like proper step technique when firing off the snap, hand technique and keeping his pad level low (something he says is particularly important for a player of his size).
“If you don’t work, you can’t get better,” Mills said. “So, by staying every day and just trying to attack my weaknesses allows me to be more complete in my game.”
Mills had flashes last year against Florida State and Virginia. He tallied all three of his sacks in those two games, with two of them against the Cavaliers. Of course, Virginia was the only game that Mills played most of his snaps at end.
While he might be known as a freak to the college football world at large, the key word Mills has for himself is “consistency”. That’s what he is looking for from himself in camp every day so he can string together a more consistent run of Saturdays this season.
“Coming into this camp, I think it was just consistency and just really being able to dominate,” Mills said. “I could look at last year and say there were certain games where I dominated more than other games. Coming in now, I want every day to be as great as I can be.”
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