Listed measurements: 6-foot-5 ⅛, 273 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: After enrolling early as a freshman to partake in one practice and then be sent home along with the rest of campus, Mills is now on the standard timeline with four years of eligibility remaining, though a sophomore who played plenty last season, thanks to the universal pandemic waiver.
Depth chart: Mills’ emergence as a freshman played a tangible part in Notre Dame’s willingness to move fifth-year Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to end from three-technique tackle. The Irish knew they could move a multi-year starter away from the interior because Mills has already proven he can readily handle the workload of a No. 2 tackle. Behind senior Jayson Ademilola, Mills may end up as much a 1B as a backup.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and the No. 154 overall prospect in the class, per rivals.com, Mills chose Notre Dame over an array of the country’s powerhouses. When it comes to defensive recruiting, there is no greater testament to a player’s potential than being sought by Alabama, Clemson and Georgia.
CAREER TO DATE
Mills appeared in nine games in 2020, making seven tackles with two for loss. Before the eligibility waiver, Mills would have been a logical fit for playing only four games, but the most important four games of the Irish schedule (Clemson, North Carolina, Clemson, Alabama). That planning would have allowed for him to grow into the rigors of college before providing relief just when the veterans’ legs may have most needed it late in the season.
But that logic was failing. Mills not only played in nine games, but he genuinely played in them. He took 23 snaps at Boston College, as one example. He played 141 total. Once he had found his footing (appearing in only one of Notre Dame’s first four games), Mills was a clear contributor, even if only in 15-20 snaps per game. The coaching staff would have taken advantage of that for 9-10 games in a normal year, too.
NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
Let’s embrace the (belated) trends of the NCAA, the newest Irish recruiting pitch and just general common sense, and try to touch on some piece of these players off the field this summer, even if that is only by embedding a tweet such that their profile handle is right there for you to go follow.
— Rylie Mills (@ryliemillss) May 7, 2021
This quote selection comes across as a generic platitude, but Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston slipped a revelation into it — partly a revelation because of the (understandable) lack of access to spring practices.
“Rylie is progressing and doing a nice job,” Elston said in mid-April. “He’s cross-training and doing some different things, but progressing well and doing a nice job.”
The idea of Mills cross-training brings up Tagovailoa-Amosa again. Though he has a few inches on the veteran, Mills’ game is similar to Tagovailoa-Amosa’s, who has always played longer than his 6-foot-2 ½ frame. Both showed an ability to penetrate into the backfield early in their career, a byproduct both of their length and of their quickness.
Defensive linemen with notable length and quickness find their way to the end, as often as not. If nothing else, giving Mills some work at “Big” end will provide Notre Dame more flexibility along its best position group.
"Rylie (Mills) was learning how to play a new position and now that he's got his understanding down, that's why you're seeing him play much more football for us." – Brian Kelly
Good hands here. (99) pic.twitter.com/NS1sGFXNL4
— Matt Freeman (@mattfreemanISD) December 8, 2020
WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
This subsection of this series will be short-lived this offseason, as Mills’ No. 99 was one of only a few entries before the endeavor was halted. But while we have the ability …
“The question of where Mills plays for most of his career hinges more on the direction his weight takes in the next two years. If Mills puts on 10-20 pounds of functional weight, then he could become an inside presence reminiscent of Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery. If, however, two years of collegiate strength and conditioning leads to Mills slimming down to 240 pounds, that length could work on the exterior a la Ade Ogundeji.
“Those are all ambitious projections, but Elston has developed linemen at such a rate and with such consistency the last few years, there is no reason to hedge the potentials of his pupils. Mills should provide another mold in that trend.
“There is a clear pecking order at all positions along the defensive line for the next couple seasons. Mills may well become a piece of a rotation, but he has time to develop. A starting honor should not be within his reach any sooner than 2022.”
The exact split between two rotating defensive tackles can vary, but when both are up to the task, Elston prefers to skew not far from 50/50. Mills appears to be up to the task. If he wasn’t, the Tagovailoa-Amosa move would have elicited more hesitation.
That may not lead to a massive statistical jump — Tagovailoa-Amosa made only 17 tackles in 11 games last year, Ademilola 11 in 8 — but Mills’ role will be clear.
DOWN THE ROAD
Ademilola has two years of eligibility remaining, part of the chaos that will develop in 2022 and 2023 regarding rosters with excess and unexpected eligibility following the universal pandemic waiver. Projecting if he comes back in 2022 would be an exercise in projecting his 2021, projecting the NCAA’s decisions, projecting the Irish coaching staff’s flexibility, and so forth. It is not a projection to toss out in May.
But either way, Mills is set up for only more work with each year of his career. Four-star recruits pursued by Alabama have hefty expectations to start with, but contributing on a Playoff defense as a freshman exceeds those. Impressing in his first spring practices then furthers those.
A year ago, without having seen much (any) of Mills, the thought of Jerry Tillery was tossed around. A career not wholly appreciated — due to, at least somewhat, Tillery’s own actions — his senior season was one of dominance that resulted in a first-round pick. It is bold to suggest that height for a player yet to undergo a true summer in a collegiate strength program, but Mills’ ceiling is at least that high.