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Football: Mills has new grip on offense

Thursday, September 11, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Monday morning quarterbacks from Wilkes-Barre to Wilmerding have been hypothesizing about the reasons for the subpar play of Penn State junior quarterback Zack Mills.


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Is it his chronic tendinitis in his left throwing elbow flaring up again? Is his shoulder giving him problems? Is his confidence shot?

And then there are those who insist the velocity on his passes has decreased and that his accuracy is off from last season.

The answers to all of those questions, according to Mills, are a resounding no.

Mills, who has struggled to spark the offense through the first two games, said his new grip on the football has alleviated any previous pain in his elbow and that Penn State's strength and conditioning program and trainers have increased his velocity.

"I haven't heard any of that stuff," said Mills, who is 21 for 45 for 223 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in the first two games. "I'm throwing with more velocity than I have in the past. My arm is stronger than ever. My arm feels the best it's ever felt."

As for his accuracy: "There were a couple of times I could have put the ball in a better spot," he said of his performance in the Boston College game.

"But I'm not throwing the ball any different. I'll have bad throws. I'm not worried about it. I'll have a good week of practice and I'm looking forward to having a good game on Saturday."

Penn State coach Joe Paterno reiterated this week that Mills is healthy and said he did not notice any drop in his confidence level. With his offensive line unable to pass protect against Boston College, Paterno inserted backup Michael Robinson into the game because he is more mobile and can make more plays when things break down around him.

Mills and Robinson said yesterday they did not know what kind of quarterback rotation would be used this week against Nebraska.

Aside from the problems with pass protection, Mills has been hampered by the slow development of the receiving corps. The coaching staff took steps this week to help shore up that position when junior Gerald Smith was moved back to receiver from defensive back.

Smith caught 11 passes for 129 yards last season and developed into a consistent No. 3 receiver by the end of the season. Sophomores Kinta Palmer and Ernie Terrell have not produced up to expectations.

"It's going to help us a lot," Mills said. "Gerald has experience. He's been through it. We know where he's going to be."

"He brings more big-play ability to the offense," Robinson said. "He can make people miss, has great hands and he gets open. Right now we need that."

The Penn State passing offense has been plagued by a number of drops and some inconsistent route running. Even senior Tony Johnson, who had 34 catches for 549 yards last season, is off to a slow start.

"If a kid is a little late coming out of a cut or he runs a cut 2 yards deep, you are in trouble," Paterno said. "That is one of our problems. We have to get some kids out there who can concentrate and then come up with the football and hang onto it."

Mills has not had many things go his way in recent games, but he can draw upon a strong performance against Nebraska last season. In one of his better games, he was 19 for 31 for 259 yards in the Lions' 40-7 victory at Beaver Stadium. Since that game he has thrown for 200 yards in a game four times but none of them occurred in his past five outings.

After going 15 for 28 for 144 yards and throwing an interception against Boston College, he heard boos from the crowd and loud voices calling for Robinson as his replacement. It was coming full circle for Mills, in a sense. Two years ago as a redshirt freshman, he was the backup whom the fans wanted to see play more at the expense of Matt Senneca.

"Of course, I noticed," Mills said. "I hear them, but it doesn't affect me. I know it's part of the game. When Senneca was here, they booed him and wanted me in there. If the offense is not going well I know this is the first position people will look to for blame.

"I understand how it works. If we come out and play great against Nebraska, they'll be cheering me. If we don't, they'll be booing me again."

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at or 412-263-1230.

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