MOBILE, Ala. – David Sills V’s roundabout route to the doorsteps of the NFL started, of all places, at a Dhani Jones football camp with other Eagles at West Chester University.
Before there was a scholarship offer at age 13 to play quarterback at USC, before he was interviewed by Good Morning America as a middle-schooler, before going to two Delaware high schools, before two stints at West Virginia sandwiched a season at junior college, and before he came to this week’s Senior Bowl as one of the most-intriguing wide receiver prospects in the NFL draft, Sills was just a 9-year-old in Bear, Del., who spent a week learning football at a camp run by his favorite team.
“That was where I really started to really get serious about playing football,” Sills said.
One year earlier, Sills attended a University of Delaware football camp as an 8-year-old. When his parents asked him how it went, Sills told them he was treated like an 8-year-old. So the next summer, they amped the competition. He went to the Eagles camp where Sills competed with 9- and 10-year olds. He stayed in a dorm for a week for his first time away from home. Sills, a quarterback at the time, excelled even though he had turned 9 only a few weeks earlier. By the end of the week, he was named the top player at the camp.
That provided validation to Sills and his family that he had potential. He soon started working with renowned private quarterback coach Steve Clarkson. By the time Sills turned 13, his passing footage was seen by then-USC coach Lane Kiffin. Sills was not yet in high school, but Kiffin offered him a scholarship. Sills became an overnight sensation, viewed as a quarterback prodigy and receiving national attention. When he landed on morning news shows, it transcended sports.
“That was probably the craziest part,” Sills said.
Except there’s a long time between 13 and 18. USC made a coaching change, and Sills was not in the new coach’s plans. He understands it now more than he did at the time, when the storybook path to prominence started to deviate. And it happened while his high school career changed directions, too. He had attended Red Lion Christian Academy, but when a new church group took over the school, football was deemphasized. Sills’ father launched Eastern Christian Academy in Elkton, Md. They took an online curriculum and played a national schedule. One of Sills’ teammates and friends was Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood.
During Sills’ junior season, he broke his knuckle, which started a decline in his passing mechanics. But he was still the team’s quarterback, and he was back on the market. When the West Virginia coach came to recruit Smallwood, they knew that his ballyhooed quarterback was available, too. That led to Sills' signing to play with the Mountaineers.
Sills initially planned on redshirting his freshman season and contributing on the scout team. That required him to run the triple option while preparing for the opener, and Sills’ athleticism was on display. One week later, the coaches needed Sills to simulate a big wide receiver in practice.
“First time ever playing receiver,” Sills said.
The West Virginia coaches spotted Sills’ potential. Sills no longer redshirted and caught two touchdowns that season – including a game-winning score in the Cactus Bowl. Still, Sills saw himself as a quarterback. When it was clear he wouldn’t win the job at West Virginia, he transferred to El Camino College in Torrance, Calif. Sills threw for 15 touchdowns, but it didn’t convince top programs he could play the position. He worked out for the Ball State coaches, and he thought it was his best day passing in three years. But he was offered only a chance to walk on as an athlete – not as a quarterback. Sills had a scholarship offer at 13, but not at 20.
“That was when I really knew,” Sills said. “You gave everything you have at quarterback, but I’ve got to hang it up now.”
Sills’ father told him to never burn bridges, and he left West Virginia on good terms. They were still interested in bringing him back as a wide receiver. So Sills returned to the Mountaineers, embraced his new position, and quickly turned into a star. He totaled 125 catches for 1,966 yards and 33 touchdowns during the past two years. He was a team captain, named to the all-Big 12 team both years and was third-team All-American last season. His 6-foot-4, 203-pound frame makes him a threat in the red zone, and his quarterback background gives him an advanced understanding of the passing game.
“He’s an interesting guy, because, for not having played wide receiver for his entire career … he actually has really good route polish in his play,” said an NFL executive who has scouted Sills. “His ball skills are good. He’s a vertical presence. He’s their go-to guy. And he’s a top-notch character kid.”
His father, David Sills IV, said Sills compartmentalized playing quarterback and embraced his new position. Sills said he cannot throw it as he used to – one mechanical problem led to another, and the muscle memory never returned after the injury – but he doesn’t need to pass anymore. And the narrative about him has changed, too.
“That’s always going to be a part of me,” Sills said. “The USC story is always going to be brought up every now and again. But I don’t think it’s going to be brought up as much as it used to be.”
Sills grew up an Eagles fan, going to two games a season because his father’s then-business partner had season tickets. They would walk through the parking lots, and his father would tell him that if he plays on Sunday, he must remember that it’s all the fans in those lots who would pay his salary.
He might play in front of those fans next year if the Eagles pick him, where he could join former teammates Smallwood, Rasul Douglas, and Shelton Gibson. And it all started because of a youth camp with Jones and the Eagles at West Chester more than a decade ago.
“That football camp really set off the light bulb that he had something special, and the journey began from there,” Sills IV said. “Frankly, the journey didn’t end up the way we expected it to end up, but God has his own plans and he makes us take detours. And this detour might work out for the best.”