MUNCIE – Zach Mills knows what it’s like to be the man for his high school football team.
It didn’t happen last year, when the soft-spoken Kentucky native found himself with a hand on the ground at fullback, tearing open holes for tailback Joe Spegal. When he got his hands on the ball, he had a habit of taking it a long way, but he was more of a jack of all trades than a focal point.
This year, rest assured, that will not be the case.
“I had to do a lot of conditioning because I know I’m the man now,” Mills said. “I’ve got to condition pretty well so I can make it through the game with like 25 carries.”
That’s actually four more than Spegal averaged per game, but Mills will certainly get his chance to carry the load. While Spegal was in the process of posting the finest rushing season in Eagles history (1,960 yards, 30 touchdowns for a 7-5 sectional finalist team), Mills made the most of his chances, averaging 12.4 yards per touch on the way to 704 yards from scrimmage and seven scores.
This sort of arrangement was new for Mills.
“He was kind of a star on his team in Kentucky,” Delta coach Grant Zgunda said. “So he came here and so I think it was more of a shock for him, even though he was a junior last year, he had started since his freshman year in Kentucky … and was their leading ball-carrier. Came here and he was behind Joe. So I think it’s more of he’s kind of back to where he was.
“We’re definitely going to give him the opportunity to have a great year, I know that.”
As a freshman in Whitley County’s Wing-T attack, Mills ran for 854 yards on 95 carries and added 239 more on eight catches. He only played six games because of an injury his sophomore year, but did have enough pop to score six touchdowns in one game.
Then he came to Muncie and found himself with a hand in the dirt as an I-formation fullback. He rotated plays with the imposing Mason Bechdolt (Mills is only 5-foot-9, 170 pounds), but now he’s straightening up, stepping back to tailback and taking command.
“His junior year here, he had to find his way into the mix,” said Delta guard Kaleb Slaven, a Ball State commit. “Now I think he’s really in the role and he’s ready to go.”
Looking at his skilled backfield and big offensive line, Zgunda retired much of the run-and-shoot attack he’d run most of his tenure and went more toward the I-formation. It concentrated carries and produced a dynamic season.
The roster changed some, but Zgunda opted to stay mostly the same, save for splitting quarterback duties and keeping a three-back look he put in at mid-season. He’s still got some big linemen in Slaven and Ryan George. He’s got a powerful fullback in Logan Clawson. And he’s got a talented runner who can dot the I.
“With Joe leaving and him coming back, he’s going to be a huge threat back there,” quarterback Ryley Pease said of Mills. “So it will help me and my receivers make more plays.”
The switch altered the profile of Delta’s top ball-carriers. In the run-and-shoot, hard-headed fullbacks, often not the fastest in the open field, carried the heaviest load. Now that’s switched over to true running backs who are allowed to stand back, survey the defense and pick their spots (something Mills called a perk).
Given the chance to take the ball and go, Mills is more than up to the task.
Zgunda said Mills, who played defense last year but won’t going forward, has the quickest feet of anyone he’s coached in more than two decades. He’s a natural tailback, someone with a natural kind of elusiveness who always seemed poised to break a big gain every time he touched the ball last season.
“He’s very explosive and when you need a couple yards or you need a lot of yards, you can go to him,” quarterback/cornerback Tanner Lambert said.
Mills isn’t one to be too verbose. Teammates describe him as laid back and coaches say he leads more by his actions. That almost seemed to fit the more anonymous role of platoon fullback, working off a main runner and clearing the way for him.
But quiet or not, that’s not how Mills prefers to play. His days of being shoehorned into a different position to get on the field are over. He’s the focal point, the bell cow, making a return to what he knows best.
“It’s different because there’s a lot of blocking involved,” Mills said of the spot he occupied last fall. “I don’t really do much blocking. I’m mostly the man.”
Contact sports writer Ben Breiner at 213-5848. Follow him on Twitter @BenBreinerTSP.