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.