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From seventh-grade phenom to failed QB to elite receiver

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Sills shows skills on long TD (0:34)

David Sills V shows off his length and speed on this 49-yard touchdown during West Virginia's win over Kansas. (0:34)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- David Sills V has learned to embrace all that he has been. And all that he never was.

He was the wunderkind quarterback, who first pierced the taboos of early-age recruiting.

He was the 13-year-old whom Lane Kiffin notoriously offered to USC, after watching only one highlight clip.

He was then the latest cautionary tale of an athlete gaining fame too young.

But that wasn't the end of Sills' story.

And after exhausting his quarterback ambitions through all means, including giving up his scholarship at West Virginia for one last try in junior college, Sills has found a new calling.

Now back with the Mountaineers, Sills has remarkably re-emerged, reinventing himself into one of the top receivers in college football, tied for the national lead in touchdown receptions.

"My story, if you want to say, is nothing I would've pictured," he says. "But I'm having so much fun now. The most fun I've ever had playing football.

"And I'm not playing quarterback."


David Sills V was 9 years old when his dad really began to believe that his son might have special talents. At the age when boys are riding bikes and playing little league baseball, Sills was named top quarterback at a week-long, summer Philadelphia Eagles' football camp.

"That kinda showed I wasn't just some crazy dad who thought his kid was better than he is," said David Sills IV, who played cornerback for the Virginia Military Institute.

The following summer, the Sills family was in the market for a QB guru to take Sills to the next level.

At the time, Steve Clarkson, who had tutored Ben Roethlisberger, was training USC Heisman winner Matt Leinert for the NFL draft when he started getting calls from Sills IV.

"I called him six or seven times, left messages, but he never answered or called me back," Sills IV said.

On the other side, Clarkson didn't know what to make of this dad from Delaware asking him to work out his pre-adolescent son.

"But [Sills IV] was persistent," Clarkson said. "At a certain point, it was like, he really wants this to happen."

Clarkson finally relented. He told Sills IV they could come to Pasadena after the draft, and he'd give Sills a look. "He had this attitude of, 'Yeah, sure, I'll take your money,'" Sills IV said.

Clarkson still believed Sills was too young after the first session.

"I thought, 'We'll do one more workout, and I'll tell them to come back in five years,'" he said.

But that next session, Sills dazzled with a natural throwing motion and an arm strength that defied his age. Clarkson had never seen anything like it. Sills wowed Clarkson even more in the ensuing days, displaying an uncanny knack for understanding defensive coverages.

"This was not normal," Clarkson said. "I started to rethink, 'How young is too young?'"

After later visiting the family in Delaware, Clarkson agreed to take on, by far, the youngest client he'd ever had.

Sills was 10 years old.


Lane Kiffin entered the picture three years later. Clarkson was in Miami for Super Bowl XLIV, and Kiffin had just left Tennessee for USC. Clarkson called, and at the end of their conversation, asked if Kiffin would watch a YouTube clip.

"No explanation given," Clarkson said. "Just asked his opinion."

"I thought I was looking at a 10th or 11th grader," Kiffin recalled, in a phone interview about Sills with ESPN.com.

As impressed as he was, Kiffin couldn't figure out why Sills was so skinny. "That's because he's 13," Clarkson told him, prompting an expletive of disbelief from Kiffin.

"He just seemed so far advanced for a kid that age," Kiffin said. "It just seemed if he stayed on that track, he was going to be an elite kid, an elite player. If the kid kept growing, he could end up being as big as [USC Heisman winner] Carson Palmer, who we'd had a few years before."

Putting aside the prudence of evaluating a quarterback off a single YouTube video, it wasn't - and still isn't - against the rules to offer a middle-schooler. But it certainly was taboo. An unspoken rule of recruiting.

It didn't take long, however, for the notion to pop into Kiffin's head.

In a follow-up phone call that same day, Kiffin broached Clarkson with the idea of offering Sills a scholarship.

"Of course, I know you're going to be offering him when he's a junior," Clarkson joked back.

"No," Kiffin retorted. "I mean like right now!"

"We thought about [Sills' age]," Kiffin said. "At the same time, we had never seen anybody look like that. ... We thought he could be a great quarterback."

By that time, Sills had already fallen in love with USC. Working out with Clarkson in California, he had gotten to meet Trojans quarterbacks Leinart, Matt Cassel and Matt Barkley.

"His childhood dream was to go to USC," Clarkson said.

The Sills family discussed the offer. That same evening, they called Kiffin, and Sills committed.

"His opinion kind of was, 'That's where I'd want to go anyway, so why wait?'" Sills IV said. "But we didn't know anything about football recruiting. Being as naïve as we were, we just said, if that's where you want to go, sign up.

"Then the world decided to have an opinion."

At a Super Bowl party, Clarkson tipped off ESPN's Shelley Smith about the commitment. Soon, the news was on the ESPN crawl, and before long, seemingly everywhere else.

Overnight, Sills became a household name. Soon, the hot takes followed: Why would Kiffin do this? How could the parents allow it? Was Sills really this good?

"It just went viral," Clarkson said. "I'm walking down radio row the week of the Super Bowl, and the whole row is talking about, not the Super Bowl, but about this 13-year-old accepting an offer from USC. It took off like a wildfire. It went crazy."

As crazy as it got, Sills IV said his son never wavered.

"What the media, TV, radio said about him, it never fazed him," he said. "Didn't change him, didn't change who he thought he was."

But just as Sills' fame was taking off, his quarterback shine began to lose luster.


The next season as an eighth grader, Stills started for the Red Lion varsity squad, and he continued to thrive as a freshman, totaling 28 touchdowns.

From there, Sills' high school career began to tumble.

Red Lion was purchased by a group that sought to de-emphasize football, prompting Sills IV to help start a new online school based out of Maryland for Sills and his teammates. Eastern Christian Academy, however, was unable to gain accreditation initially in Maryland, and Sills played only three games as a sophomore.

Then in November of his junior season, he broke his knuckle, which Clarkson believes forever changed Sills' passing technique.

"It organically created this funny wrist motion," he said. "And he never got it back to where it was when people thought he was the perfect passer. He just couldn't get over the hump for whatever reason."

Meanwhile, back in Los Angles, Kiffin had already been fired on the tarmac of LAX.

New USC coach Steve Sarkisian didn't pull Sills' scholarship, but he made it clear Sills was no longer in the Trojans' plans. USC had already landed a commitment from ESPN 300 quarterback Ricky Town. The Trojans were also heavily pursuing another ESPN 300 prospect -- Sam Darnold.

"The communication went from slim to none," Sills IV said. "David went out there to meet with Steve. David said the body language was, 'You're not my guy, and I don't want you.' That's when David decommitted."

To compensate for his diminished passing skills, Sills attempted to become more of a running quarterback his senior year. He'd always had the athleticism, yet never utilized it, focusing on sticking in the pocket instead. But in the third game, he broke a bone in his ankle, knocking him out for the season.

Once the model of a perfect quarterback, Sills had become damaged goods.


Sills had been injured, altered and discarded. Yet Dana Holgorsen still saw promise.

"You watched him and [the ball] didn't come out great," the West Virginia coach said. "But you loved his demeanor and his starting-quarterback mentality, his savvy and all the intangibles. I just loved the kid. I thought he was an unbelievable football player.

"And I wanted him on my team."

"He just seemed so far advanced for a kid that age. It just seemed if he stayed on that track, he was going to be an elite kid, an elite player."

Lane Kiffin

His freshman year in 2015, Sills was redshirting while splitting time at scout-team quarterback. The Mountaineers were getting ready to play Liberty, which had a bigger wide receiver. None of the West Virginia scout-team receivers had much size. So at 6-foot-4, Sills was asked to man receiver for the week.

"He goes to scout team and just starts tearing it up," Holgorsen said. "... [defensive coordinator Tony Gibson] was like, 'Dang, we can't cover David Sills.' That's when I started watching him really play receiver."

The Mountaineers needed help in their rotation there. So in Week 6, Holgorsen approached Sills about playing receiver. Not wanting to burn a year of eligibility to play quarterback, Sills confesses he was reluctant.

"Then the Sunday after the game, [Holgorsen] told me, 'We really need you to play. The team needs you,'" Sills said. "And I was like, 'OK, I'll play.'"

That next game at Baylor, Sills remarkably caught two passes, including a 35-yard touchdown.

"I had never seen him run a pattern in my life," said Sills IV, who took the family to Waco for their first West Virginia road game. "It was absolutely shocking -- especially for a kid that at one time was considered a statue quarterback."

Sills would catch another touchdown in the Mountaineers' bowl game. But even though he seemed to be a natural at wide receiver, Sills couldn't shake his quarterback ambitions. In the spring of 2016 he rotated between quarterback and receiver but couldn't find peace.

"You know, he just couldn't let it go," Holgorsen said. "So he came in and said, 'Coach, I love it here. I love my team. I love my coaches. But I just can't let it go.' And I said, well, 'I'm not giving you that chance. But I encourage you to go play quarterback. If it doesn't work out, call me, or I'll call you.' And I gave him a big hug."

And so, Sills left West Virginia to go play quarterback for El Camino College -- a community college in Torrance, California, just down the road from the university where 13-year-old Sills believed he was destined to star.


At El Camino, Sills tried desperately to resuscitate his quarterback dreams. For seven months, he lived on the couch at the apartment of high school buddy Khaliel Rodgers, who was then an offensive lineman for USC. Every day, Sills would drag Rodgers out to the parking lot to practice taking hundreds of snaps.

"He was so determined," said Rodgers, now a starting lineman for North Carolina. "I've never seen anybody work harder than him."

Sills had a decent season for El Camino. Over 10 games, he threw for more than 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns. But the offers never came.

"You think you're going to play in the [Los Angeles Memorial] Coliseum with 100,000 people watching," Sills said, "and you actually go play 20 miles down the road at a junior college with 500 people watching."

Holgorsen, however, was still watching, too.

And just as Sills was about to consider walking on anywhere that might take him, Holgorsen called and asked if he was ready to come back to West Virginia and truly give receiver a shot. Finally, Sills was.

"Quarterback was 100 percent out of my system," he said. "I think if I would've stayed [at West Virginia], I don't think I would've gotten it out."


"I'm at peace now," Sills says. And he's applying the same determination to wide receiver that once made him a quarterback prodigy. On the fly, that has transformed him into the go-to receiver for West Virginia quarterback Will Grier. "I've never been more impressed with somebody," said Grier, who was amazed when he first was introduced to Stills - the adolescent quarterback whiz Grier envied through much of high school. "The dude is a legit receiver, and he's only played it a year."

In the opener, Sills had nine catches in a loss to Virginia Tech. But on the second-to-last play of the game, he failed to corral a low liner from Grier in the end zone that would've tied the Hokies. Holgorsen estimates that in the following two weeks Sills caught 1,500 low balls before and after practice on his own. "I've never seen a kid work as hard, from an intelligence point of view, and work ethic point of view," Holgorsen said. "He tries to outwork everybody." To Clarkson, that is nothing new. "He went back (to West Virginia) with a clear conscience," Clarkson said. "And he's happy. And that's the story."

Well, almost the story.

Sills' groundbreaking commitment to USC made it more acceptable for schools to pursue prospects not yet in high school. Because of Sills, it was no longer so taboo.

Three years after Kiffin offered Sills, Dylan Moses had not even started eighth grade when LSU and Les Miles offered him. The same summer, UCLA offered quarterback Lindell Stone before he'd taken a snap for Southlake Carroll High School. The following day, Kentucky gave an offer to cornerback Jairus Brents, who was just 13. Tate Martell, another Clarkson quarterback protégé, wasn't in eighth grade, either, when Sarkisian offered him to Washington.

But this summer, Illinois took the trend to a new level, offering 10-year-old youth football star Bunchie Young.

Now at Florida Atlantic, Kiffin hasn't stopped recruiting junior-high kids, either. This May, he offered Kaden Martin, the 13-year-old son of USC offensive coordinator and former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin.

All of this might make some feel uneasy. For Sills, it doesn't at all.

"It's really how they take it," he said. "If someone gets an offer and they think they don't have to work hard anymore and take the foot off the gas, then I think it is something that happened too soon. But if they take it that, 'I want to live up to this,' and keep going and get better, then I don't think it's too soon."

Sills did all he could to live up to that day when he received an offer at 13.

Now, he's living another story. And, another dream.

"It's the most interesting and impressive story I've ever been a part of," Grier said. "It's absolutely insane, and I love it.

"There's going to be a 30 for 30 on him someday."