By Tim Casey
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - - With Eastern Christian Academy of Maryland trailing by 23 points entering the fourth quarter Friday night, junior quarterback David Sills nearly led his team to an improbable comeback before St. Peter's Prep of New Jersey held on for a 35-32 upset victory at Rutgers University.
Running a hurry-up offense in the final 12 minutes, Sills ran for two touchdowns, threw for another, connected on 10 of his last 14 passes and displayed the ability that once had people touting him as a can't-miss prospect.
Problem was, Sills began the game completing only 4 of his first 18 passes and did little to quiet the growing chatter that he may never live up to the hype bestowed upon him as the rare player to attain national acclaim in middle school.
As a seventh grader in February 2010, Sills verbally committed to USC, less than a month after Lane Kiffin took over as the Trojans' head coach. Steve Clarkson, a noted private quarterbacks coach from Southern California who started working with Sills when he was 10, had asked Kiffin to watch a highlights video of Sills that Clarkson uploaded to YouTube a day earlier. After viewing the film, Kiffin told Clarkson that Sills was talented but skinny. He then inquired about Sills' age.
"He's 13," Clarkson replied.
Thirty minutes later, Kiffin called back Clarkson.
"He said, 'What would you think if I offered him a scholarship?'," Clarkson said. "I said, 'Well, I know you're going to offer him at some point.' He goes, 'No, like right now. Today.' I was like, 'Are you crazy?'"
The offer generated headlines throughout the country and led to debates about how old players should be before receiving scholarship offers. Now, Sills may never get the chance to play for Kiffin.
After last Saturday's 10-7 home loss to lowly Washington State, USC fans are calling for Kiffin's firing, although athletics director Pat Haden has publicly supported Kiffin. Still, with the Trojans losing five of their final six games last year and starting 2-1 this year, Kiffin's future at the school could be in jeopardy if the struggles continue.
Sills re-iterated on Friday that he plans on fulfilling his commitment to USC, although if another coach is hired to replace Kiffin, the new staff could always pull the offer and Sills could change his mind. Sills can't sign a letter of intent until February 2015.
"[Kiffin's job status] is obviously a concern, but right now I'm focusing on the high school team," Sills said. "I'll get to college when I get to college."
Sills is no longer considered in the top echelon of his peers on a national level. He is not one of the 22 quarterbacks listed on ESPN's top 300 players for the high school class of 2015 nor is he among the 27 junior quarterbacks ranked by Scout.com. In July, USC offered scholarships to juniors Josh Rosen and Ricky Town, both of whom live in California. Town, Scout.com's top quarterback, committed to Alabama in August. Rosen, ESPN's top quarterback, has not yet announced where he will play. Pursuing Rosen and Town with Sills already committed indicated to some that USC's coaches are not as enamored with Sills as they were before.
Brandon Huffman, Scout.com's national football recruiting analyst, said Sills is the first kid he knew who received a scholarship offer in seventh grade. Since, Huffman has watched Sills on film and play in person a few times. He said Sills has good size (6-foot-3 and 200 pounds), but he has a "funky" release and tries to throw the ball too hard and show off his arm strength instead of varying his passes. Sills will likely sign with a major Division 1 program, according to Huffman, but numerous other quarterbacks have passed him in the eyes of coaches and scouts.
"It's a surprise [Sills isn't ranked] because of how much hype he got three years ago," Huffman said. "But on the same hand, from people that have seen him, it's not that big of a surprise because he just hasn't progressed like you would expect him to given the caliber of recruit he was considered as a seventh grader. I don't know how to say this nicely, but it's almost like he's out of sight, out of mind."
Sills' stock has dropped at least in part because Eastern Christian only played three games last fall. Maryland's high school athletics body did not sanction the school to compete, causing its opponents to cancel games. The controversy wasn't anything new to Sills' teams.
As an eighth and ninth grader, Sills started on the varsity at Delaware's Red Lion Christian Academy, whose program committed several rules violations and withdrew from its conference. The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal reported that Sills' father (David Sills IV) helped found a financial aid program for football players as well as an on-campus training facility run by Red Lion coach Dwayne Thomas. Thomas is now Eastern Christian's coach.
After new owners took over Red Lion and de-emphasized football, Sills' father spoke with the coaches and other parents of football players. They decided to open Eastern Christian in February 2012 in nearby Elkton, Maryland.
"You had a lot of kids that were looking at Division I offers," Sills IV said. "They needed to play at the highest level…The people that owned [Red Lion] said, 'This isn't what we want to do'. We said, 'OK, we've got to go somewhere else.'"
Sills IV estimates Eastern Christian now has 50 to 60 students, nearly all of whom are on the football team. Two seniors have already committed to Michigan, one is headed to Tennessee and another is off to West Virginia next year. In recent years, former Red Lion or Eastern Christian players have signed with USC, UCLA, Syracuse, Auburn, Mississipi State and other Division I colleges.
Tuition at Eastern Christian is $10,000 per year, but students can receive aid if their families can't afford the high cost. The school offers 80% of its courses online. From 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. each day, students attend classes with online and in-classroom instructors, according to Thomas.
Thomas said Sills has adapted well to the new environment and has continued to improve. Still, with Sills committing to USC so early and refusing to waver, Thomas believes some major colleges have ignored Sills and don't want to waste time chasing after him. This past week, though, coaches from Tennessee and West Virginia contacted Thomas to inquire about Sills.
"I would have wished that he didn't commit," Thomas said. "You want to be recruited, and when you commit like that, there are colleges that will probably just take a stance of staying away from you…[USC] is great. I've got two [former Eastern Christian players] that are there now. But so is Georgia, so is Michigan, so is Stanford. I think schools kind of say, 'This kid seems to be committed to that school, let's not pursue him.' But I think as SC has gone through some things here lately, I think people are kind of opening their eyes a little more and saying, 'Maybe he won't go to USC.'"
For his part, Sills said he has no regrets about choosing USC and embraces the fact that opponents go hard after him because of his fame. He will face plenty of tough competition this fall. Eastern Christian, now sanctioned by the state but not part of a league, has put together an ambitious 11-game schedule that includes trips to Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, DC. The Honey Badgers (yes, that's Eastern Christian's mascot) are now 3-1.
"I like playing with a target on my back," Sills said. "It makes me better and makes everyone around me better."
Besides playing in high school games, Sills also maintains a close relationship with Clarkson, who has worked with Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart, Matt Cassel, Matt Barkley, Jimmy Clausen, Jake Locker and other quarterbacks with NFL experience. Even though they live nearly 3,000 miles away, the two work out together several times a year either in Los Angeles or near Sills' home in Delaware.
On Wednesday and Thursday in Philadelphia, Clarkson helped Sills with numerous aspects of his game, such as his movement in the pocket and how to improvise when under pressure. They watched tape of St. Peter's Prep, too.
Only a few hundred fans attended Friday's game at Rutgers's 52,000-seat stadium. For most of the night, Sills was outplayed by St. Peter's Prep junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who has offers from Ohio State, Miami, Maryland and other schools. Sills' fourth-quarter performance, though, impressed his opponents.
Afterward, Sills went over and spoke with a few defensive players from St. Peter's Prep. They all praised Sills.
"That's how you lead your team," linebacker Almamy Conde told Sills.
And yet, despite nearly coming back from a 23-point deficit, Sills wasn't too thrilled with Eastern Christian's first loss of the season.
"They gave us something different than what they had on film," Sills said. "We just weren't prepared for it. We'll definitely get better from here. This won't be the last time you hear of us."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.