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2003 Preview: Tragedy mars off-season for Penn State's Zack Mills

Friday, August 29, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

First, Zack Mills had to deal with the possibility of losing his job as starting quarterback for the Penn State football team. Then, he had to deal with something far more serious.

In the span of 19 days, Mills lost two teammates in accidents.

On May 31, Greg Hennigar, a freshman reserve quarterback at Penn State, died in a car wreck outside Philadelphia. On June 18, Billy Gaines, a receiver at the University of Pittsburgh, fell to his death inside St. Anne Church in Homestead. Mills and Gaines were teammates at Urbana High School in Ijamsville, Md., and had won a state championship together.

"It was a rough span," Mills said. "It's just a very sad and unfortunate thing that happened. Billy was a good friend of mine. We kept in touch. I played with him my senior year. It was just tough. It was hard to move on."

Gaines was legally drunk at the time of his accident.

Penn State players have had their share of off-field incidents involving alcohol in the off-season. Mills said that the deaths have made him more cautious concerning his alcohol intake.

"Yeah it does," he said. "It makes you think twice about it. It makes you think about how quickly something like that can happen. It just makes you think about all of things you've got. One thing like that can happen in a split-second. It's a tragedy."

It certainly put things in perspective. The first few months of the off-season his biggest worry was his winning back his starting position. After a poor performance against Auburn in the Capital One Bowl, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno refused to name Mills as his incumbent starter the day after the game. Mills was 8 for 24 for 67 yards and an interception against the Tigers in what was his worst game as a college player. Backup Michael Robinson came on in relief and led the Lions to a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.

"I think anytime someone plays poorly and when someone comes in and does a decent job, there's going to be some questions asked," Mills said. "No matter what sport it is. That's just the nature of the sport, the nature of society in general. If I was somebody sitting on the couch watching the Redskins or something, I'd have been thinking the same thing."

By the time the Lions had gathered for summer practices, Paterno had come to the conclusion that Mills was the man to lead the team again and chastised members of the media for "jumping off the Mills bandwagon."

"I don't think the media is giving Zack the attention he deserves," Paterno said. "I think Zack Mills is a big-time college quarterback. It's unfortunate that we seem to forget he was only a sophomore last year."

After Paterno's comments in the aftermath of the Capital One Bowl, Mills was happy to hear some positive reinforcement.

"It means a lot to me," he said. "It takes a lot for him to come out and say something positive about someone. It's nice to hear something positive. It just shows he has confidence in me."

Only a junior, Mills already is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Penn State history. In two seasons, has passed for 4,086 yards and 26 touchdowns. With another 2,000-yard passing season he will become the school's all-time leader in passing yards. He needs 14 touchdown passes to become the all-time leader in that category.

With the graduation of running back Larry Johnson, who led the nation in rushing, and four offensive linemen, the Penn State offense, at least early on, will revolve around Mills. Paterno said he might have to pass 40, 45 times a game as he breaks in his new line and tailback.

That was music to Mills' ears.

"I'm excited," he said. "I hope we chuck the ball 30, 40 times a game. That's what this offense has kind of evolved into the past couple of years."

With a deep group of receivers to choose from, the Penn State offense has the ability to take flight with Mills at the controls. Senior receiver Tony Johnson leads a talented corps of wideouts.

"We worked this spring on throwing a lot," said Johnson, who had 34 receptions for 549 yards and three touchdowns last season. "Hearing Coach say we might have to throw 30 or 40 times, that puts a smile on your face. At the same time it adds more pressure to make those big plays in the ballgame. But I think we'll definitely live up to it."

The one thing that could hold the passing game is an ineffective offensive line. Only senior Chris McKelvy has significant experience, and even he didn't start every game last season. Mills said the non-conference schedule will be an important time in their development.

"It's going to be tough," Mills said. "It's going to be a struggle at first, especially early. The line is very young. If they're not young, they're inexperienced guys. And I feel these first couple of games will be very important to get some experience under their belt. Once they get that and feel more comfortable and confident in themselves, they're going to be OK."

Entering his third season and second as full-time starter, Mills has one added responsibility this season. As one of the older players, he is being looked to for leadership.

"That comes with being an upperclassmen. Being a quarterback you're a leader. But being young it kind of takes a little bit away. As a freshman or even a sophomore, you look over and see Gus Felder, a fifth-year senior. You try to talk to him, but it's hard sometimes for them to listen to you.

"They know you've been through game experiences and battles on the field. They look to you for guidance and what to expect. They can look at me and trust me because of what I've been through."

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