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Why undrafted Bills receiver David Sills might be 'steal' of draft weekend

Tyron Carrier needed a couple of days.

The former West Virginia wide receivers coach watched the NFL draft come and go without one of his players, David Sills V, being selected. The snub left Carrier dumbfounded.

“I was actually really upset about it,” Carrier said last week. “I texted him and was like, 'Let's not talk for at least two days.' It took about three days to get me on a phone. It was probably more tough on me than it was on him, because he hasn't learned to play the position from anybody but me. I kind of hung my hat on that kid, and his success.”

Sills had a ton of that for the Mountaineers. He made 33 touchdown catches over the past two seasons, most of any player in the highest level of college football. Still, a player who was projected to be a fourth-round pick listened as 254 players heard their names called over seven rounds instead of his.

“It was a shocker, but I’ll tell y’all what: It opened a can of worms. That's for sure. It was already open, but you done opened another one,” Carrier said. “That kid is going to come in and he's going to be on another level.”

The Buffalo Bills can only hope that assessment is accurate. After not drafting a wide receiver, the team signed Sills as an undrafted free agent. It has the potential to be a perfect fit for player and team.

Even though the Bills signed a trio of wide receivers in free agency – Cole Beasley, John Brown and Andre Roberts – there could be an opportunity for Sills to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Carrier would not be the least bit surprised if that did happen.

“He’s never backed down from any challenge,” he said of Sills. “What I told him when we did talk was how we're going to sit back 10, 15 years from now laughing about this and saying how crazy everybody was for not drafting you and how smart Buffalo was for signing you.”

Going undrafted is hardly the first bump in the road encountered by Sills on his path to the NFL. He was once a 13-year-old, seventh-grade quarterback who famously – or some would say infamously – was offered a scholarship by Lane Kiffin to attend the University of Southern California. That brought with it national headlines and a debate about early recruiting. Just how young is too young is a question the NCAA still hasn’t answered.

“It feels like a long time – almost half of my life ago is when it happened,” Sills, 22, said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “It's something that I feel like prepared me for the situation I'm in now. Just being able to handle the media and handle yourself with teammates. Going through all that at a young age, matured me a little bit.”

David Sills is taking part in Bills' rookie camp. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Sills credits his parents, David Sills IV and Denise, with leading him through what could have been an overwhelming time.

“They made sure I was staying levelheaded and humble through it all,” he said. “Just continuing to be persistent and determined is kind of how they brought me up and raised me. (His commitment) definitely took off a little bit more than we anticipated, but they did a great job helping me. My teammates were awesome to me. It's not like they treated me any different. At such a young age, they just acted like, 'It's no big deal.' Honestly, I think being in such a small state and going to a private school in Delaware, I didn't really know how much it all meant at the time.”

Sills attended Red Lion Christian Academy, and started for the varsity team as an eighth grader. The next year, he put up 28 touchdowns as a freshman, showing why Sports Illustrated referred to him as “one of the greatest prospects ever.”

That never came to be. Sills’ school was sold, and football was de-emphasized. While a new online school out of Maryland was formed, it struggled to gain accreditation and Sills played just three games as a sophomore. Then, as a junior, a pivotal turning point happened when Sills broke a knuckle on his passing hand. His “perfect” release was gone.

So, too, was Kiffin at USC – famously fired on the tarmac. New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian said the program would honor the scholarship offer, but Sills got the feeling he wasn’t wanted, so in June 2014 he decommitted.

A month later, he announced his commitment to West Virginia. He competed for the Mountaineers’ starting quarterback job as a freshman in 2015, but was beaten out by Skyler Howard. The plan became for Sills to redshirt while working on the scout team, but that changed leading up to a game against Liberty.

The Mountaineers didn’t have a scout-team wide receiver with much size, so the 6-foot-3-inch Sills was asked to mimic one of Liberty’s taller receivers.

"He goes to scout team and just starts tearing it up," former West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen told ESPN in 2017. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson “was like, 'Dang, we can't cover David Sills.' That's when I started watching him really play receiver.’ "

In Week 6 of his freshman year, Holgorsen asked Sills to play receiver. Doing so would burn a year of his college eligibility, but he agreed to help out the team. That week he caught a 35-yard touchdown against Baylor.

Sills, though, he couldn’t let go of the idea of playing quarterback. He rotated between the two positions during spring practice in 2016, but Holgorsen eventually broke the news to Sills that he would not be the Mountaineers’ quarterback.

So Sills headed west, transferring to El Camino College, a community college in Torrance, Calif., not far from USC. He had a good, but not great year, throwing for more than 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns.

“But I didn't really get any Division I looks that wanted me at quarterback,” Sills said. “A couple days before the dead period, coach Holgorsen called me and said, 'We want you to come back and play receiver.' From that moment forward, I haven't looked back. I've been 100 percent committed to playing receiver, and don't even think about playing quarterback anymore, honestly.”

David Sills made himself into a wide receiver at West Virginia. (Getty Images)

Sills arrived back on campus and approached Carrier with a simple request: Teach me everything you know.

“The way I looked at it was I was a little bit behind the eight ball, because a lot of these guys have been playing the position their whole lives,” he said. “So I had to work that much harder and do that much more to even the playing field a little bit.”

Sills proved to be a quick study. He finished his junior year as a Biletnikoff Award finalist after making 60 catches for 980 yards and 18 touchdowns, tied for the most in the nation. He was named to the All-Big 12 Conference first team, and made 10 All-American teams – including three first-team selections.

"I think he can play as long as he wants to play at the next level,” Carrier said. “He's a technician, probably one of the smartest kids I've ever been around, one of the most hardworking kids, too. I mean, I can rave about him all day. I really feel like Buffalo has got the steal of the NFL draft. It's out of this world that he didn't get drafted. I don't understand, but congratulations to Buffalo.

“He went through his bumps learning to play receiver. I want to say what made him so good is just that work ethic, that drive to be great. Most kids that come out, that got an offer that young, usually are brats. This kid, it was so shocking. He was nothing like that. He's just a hard worker.”

Sills followed up his impressive junior season with another highly productive year. He had 65 catches for 986 yards and 15 touchdowns this past season. He once again made the All-Big 12 first team, was a third-team AP All-American and was named West Virginia’s Offensive Player of the Year. His 35 career receiving touchdowns, mostly accumulated in just two seasons, rank second in program history.

“He got better for me each year,” said Carrier, who has left West Virginia for his alma mater, Houston, when Holgorsen was named the Cougars' head coach. “His senior year, he could feel what defenders are trying to do. Once you get to that point, you get into your own groove. You don't have to coach him as much. He knows what type of coverage they're trying to play on him, how the DB is trying to play him. He's truly, truly a steal.”

No player wants to go undrafted, but doing so comes with one big benefit. Those players immediately become unrestricted free agents, meaning they can choose to sign with whatever team they feel like offers the best situation.

Sills is close friends with former West Virginia receiver Daikiel Shorts, who signed with the Bills two years ago as an unrestricted free agent. The two talk regularly, and Shorts filled in Sills on what to expect in Buffalo, particularly when it came to Chad Hall, the former offensive assistant who this year has been promoted to wide receivers coach.

“He said coach Hall really pushes you as a receiver and teaches you a lot, which is something that appealed to me," Sills said. “How much more I think I can learn at the position was something that was very important to me. You don't always see that with position coaches around the league, it might be more Xs and Os, and not as much fundamentals and technique, which is something that I still want to learn a lot of. That weighed a good bit into it.”

There is reason to think that Sills might just be scratching the surface of his potential.

“I've been playing the position for two years. By no means do I feel like I've mastered the position,” he said. "I feel like I still have a lot of learning to do, which is exciting, knowing that I don't think I've reached my full potential playing the position. I feel like I don't really know where my ceiling is yet.”

Even before rookie minicamp, Sills has started the process of bonding with one of his new quarterbacks. He spent a week with the University at Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson at the Senior Bowl, and then the pair threw together in California as they trained for the NFL scouting combine and pro days.

After both signed with the Bills, they prepared for this weekend’s rookie minicamp by throwing together at UB.

“He’s awesome. He’s a great receiver,” Jackson said after Friday’s practice. “He was flying around and doing a very good job.”

Given his past, Sills knows what Jackson is looking for in a receiver. That quarterback knowledge was a big selling point for the Bills.

“We talk about valuing smarts and intelligent football players and having that quarterback background is an important piece of that,” coach Sean McDermott said. “It doesn’t necessarily always mean that a player is football smart, but that quarterback piece in one’s background is somewhat unique. … He’s got a little bit of a feel in the passing game, partly because of his quarterback background.

“I think his story has been well-documented out there. It’s a pretty unique story and I love the fact that he seems to kind of approach his college career and every day moving forward, with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.”

As part of that lengthy ESPN feature story in 2017, there is a photo included of a teenage Sills talking with former USC quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Matt Cassel after a throwing session on the Coliseum turf. Sills couldn’t help but laugh when asked about that picture, and the possibility of now catching passes from Barkley at the NFL level.

A teenage David Sills, left, chats with Southern Cal quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Matt Barkley. (Photo courtesy of Arash Markazi)

“I look like skin and bones in that picture,” he said. “That was a long time ago. It's kind of ironic we ended up on the same team and he could be throwing balls to me.”

The image captures all that Sills once was, but it’s not something he’s trying to get away from.

“I don't really want to get past it,” he said. “When someone says, ‘Hey, you're that kid,' it's not something that bothers me. I think it's something that's naturally going to be brought up here and there.”

Maybe so, but if Sills continues down the path he’s on, it will become a mere footnote in his story.

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