A different dream comes true

Maryland passed on Mills

now QB drives Penn State

Mills longed to play for Terps

College Football

September 21, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Zack Mills is living a dream. It's just not the one he fantasized about four years ago.

Mills is the sophomore quarterback for No. 15 Penn State, and he's charged with restoring order in Happy Valley. When the Nittany Lions routed Nebraska, 40-7, last week, he had 110,000 spectators on their feet and a state singing his praises, but it's not what Mills had in mind when he was a junior at Urbana High.

His preference would have been to star in College Park, not State College, and if ever a kid seemed destined to wear a Maryland uniform, it was Mills.

The left-hander wears No. 7 because of Boomer Esiason, whose photo still adorns his bedroom wall. His father's business partner is Greg Harraka, one of Esiason's old offensive linemen at Maryland. Mills men had been season-ticket holders at Byrd Stadium since the early 1960s, and Zack's affinity for the Terps was filled with as much potential as passion, as he went 2-0 there during his prep career, guiding Urbana to the first two of its four straight state titles.

"My dad pretty much raised me as a Maryland fan," Mills said. "Growing up, I went to most of their games. Penn State used to play Maryland every year, and the series was 30-something [35], 1 and 1. When a team keeps beating you over and over, you develop a hatred for them."

Mills' matriculation followed some crazy bounces, one being that the Terps coach who spurned him, Ron Vanderlinden, is now the linebacker coach at Penn State. After the 2000 season, Vanderlinden was fired and replaced by Ralph Friedgen. The quarterbacks in Vanderlinden's last recruiting classes at Maryland included Latrez Harrison, Shaun Hill and Chris Kelley, but not Mills, who was unbeaten in his last two high school seasons.

"In retrospect, we should have recruited him," Vanderlinden said of Maryland. "He's such a solid player, he's got a great touch on the ball, and I think he surprised everybody with his quickness and speed. You didn't see that in high school because of the style of offense they [Urbana] ran."

Mills accepted a Penn State offer in the spring of his junior year. Urbana coach Dave Carruthers scratched his head over Maryland's indifference, and Mills' ego ached.

"If they laid something down, I was going to jump on it," Mills said. "Maryland is the school that I always wanted to go to, ever since I was a little kid."

Mills showed considerable mettle as a redshirt freshman when he salvaged Penn State's season and provided another angle to one of the weirdest college football seasons ever along the Mason-Dixon line.

While Maryland won an unexpected Atlantic Coast Conference title, Penn State finished 5-6 for its first back-to-back losing seasons since the Great Depression. Thanks to Mills, who came off the bench and rallied the Nittany Lions in three of their four Big Ten wins and steered them out of an 0-4 rut, the glass nonetheless appeared more than half full.

"The way he got us back on track was really impressive," wide receiver Tony Johnson said. "Zack knows how to handle situations - just a calm, cool, relaxed guy."

Mills displayed more than a strong arm when he replaced an ineffective Matt Senneca. He threw for 1,669 yards, a Penn State freshman record, but it was his 69-yard run that sparked a big comeback that beat Ohio State and pushed Joe Paterno past Bear Bryant on the all-time Division I-A wins list.

In his 37th season, Paterno has 329 wins. Florida State's Bobby Bowden has 326 after routing a Maryland team that, coincidence or not, has quarterback problems, and Mills will have a lot to say about the coaches' race as they near retirement. While Mills created a tradition at Frederick County's Urbana, where he was in the second graduating class, now he must restore one.

Now Mills distributes the ball to skill people who all have roots in Maryland. Top wide receiver Bryant Johnson is a senior out of City College. Tony Johnson and his brother, Larry, the top tailback, were raised in Charles County until their father, Penn State's defensive line coach, moved on after he put McDonough High on the map.

Mills threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns in a narrow win over Central Florida in this year's opening game. Despite a touch of tendinitis, he was even sharper against Nebraska, completing 19 of 31 attempts for 259 yards.

Beaver Stadium will be bouncing again today when the Nittany Lions play Louisiana Tech, but Mills carries the knowledge that overflow crowds can turn on a quarterback quickly.

"I know they're quick to jump on you here," Mills said. "I wouldn't want our fans to be satisfied with our last few seasons, especially with the tradition here."

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