UMass football fall camp day five: Rodney Mills looks to continue bringing versatility to tight end position

By Anthony Chiusano

Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian
Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian

Rodney Mills hates being labeled as a single position player. And although he heads into the 2015 season as the No. 1 tight end on the Massachusetts football team’s depth chart, the senior’s mindset hasn’t changed at all.

Mills is coming off a career-best season in 2014 when he hauled in 30 catches for 489 yards and five touchdowns in seven starts. This production came in a variety roles, including tight end, fullback, wide out and as a member of the special teams unit.

Mills said this versatility was first displayed in high school when he lined up in different parts of the offense for Eastside High School in Gainesville, Florida.  Since then, he’s embraced the role and has made it a point of pride in his play.

“That’s how I grew up, playing many different positions,” Mills said Friday after practice. “I was fortunate enough to be able to still do that in college. That comes with my size (6-foot-2), not really being a big, wide tight end or a small, speedy or tall receiver.

“With my body size and my skillset, I was able to play a lot of different positions and do whatever it takes to help the team.”

While Mills rather not be labeled in terms of his role, Minutemen tight ends coach Steve Costello believes he has a simple one that encompasses all of Mills’ unique skillset.

“He’s a football player,” said Costello, a 2005 UMass graduate. “You can line him up anywhere and he can get the job done. He creates a lot of mismatches with linebackers because he’s as tough as a tight end, got moves like a wide receiver and he runs like a running back.”

In his role as a tight end, Mills replaces former tight end Jean Sifrin, who left after playing one year at UMass in which he caught 42 passes and six touchdowns. Having brought size and athleticism at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, Sifrin’s departure leaves a big gap to fill in the offense.

But Costello said he isn’t worried about finding production at tight end and added that it will be a collective effort from the group. Along with Mills, the Minutemen return Brandon Howard, Shaquille Harris, Sharif Custis and former quarterbacks-turned tight ends Todd Stafford and A.J. Doyle among others to the position.

“We got guys who can replace him,” Costello said. “Jean was a good player but when you lose a player, it’s just next guy up. We feel pretty confident in our group.”

As a senior with eight receptions in 24 career games, Howard brings the most experience to the group besides Mills. Costello added that Custis, a redshirt sophomore, perhaps has the most potential to break out as a consistent contributor this year.

But Costello maintained that Mills is the “head honcho” of the corps, both in game experience and in the leadership role he has taken among the offensive group as a whole.

“When you go out and prove yourself a little bit, they tend to follow your words,” Mills said. “As long as you’ve been positive and productive at the same time, that leadership role is kind of brought upon you.

“I’ve embraced it and just took it and ran with it.”

Minutemen enjoy post-practice treat prior to Saturday scrimmage

In preparation for Saturday night’s inter-team scrimmage, Friday’s practice saw a considerable rise in intensity, including a closing “four-cone” drill that placed members of the UMass offense against those on the defense in a high-tension format with plenty of trash talk from both sides.

But following the drill and ensuing sprints, the team was treated with a surprise as the stereotypical ice cream truck tune that almost everyone knows too well and remembers from their childhood began blasting through the McGuirk Stadium speakers.

What followed was a mass of players running toward the field’s exit where a Bart’s Ice Cream truck was stationed with nine different flavor options.

According to coach Mark Whipple, the goal was to end the first week of fall camp on a lighthearted note and make sure everyone was rested and refreshed for Saturday’s scrimmage.

“It’s just kinda like, we’ll take the rest of the night off,” Whipple said. “The last two days have been really good and you have to be smart, you can’t wear them out.”

As for what he’s looking to see in tomorrow night’s scrimmage, Whipple said he will be focusing on certain settings including red zone, goal line and two-minute situations.

“We’re way ahead schematically but we also have some new guys on both sides of the ball,” Whipple said. “So situations are what we’ll look at in the scrimmage.”

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.