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QB Mills played through pain in USD's title run
USD quarterback Mason Mills was wearing a tight, white nylon shirt after a practice this week. With his hands on his hips, he moved his right elbow forward, and it was as if a walnut suddenly popped up at the end of his clavicle.
It’s a nice conversation starter.
“I know, it looks like I have three shoulders,” Mills said nonchalantly.
The bump may be there for the rest of Mills’ life, but it’ll remind him of the toughness he showed in leading the Toreros to a share of the Pioneer Football League championship last season.
Mills suffered a separated right (throwing) shoulder late in the first half in a Week 3 loss to UC Davis. When the Coronado High product was told he couldn’t further damage the shoulder and could play for as long as he could withstand the pain, there was no question he would carry on.
The very next week, Mills took some numbing shots to the shoulder, came off the bench and threw five touchdown passes in a come-from-behind 48-44 win over Morehead State. USD won seven of its final eight games to finish 9-2 overall, 7-1 in conference, with Mills gritting his teeth and playing through the pain.
The trauma was judged to be worth it when the Toreros passed the PFL trophy around, Mills maybe more gingerly, following their victory over Jacksonville in the season finale.
“It was something that I had to deal with,” Mills said. “In this game, people get hurt. Other guys on this team were hurt worse than I was. Everybody is working for one cause. We all had our eyes on the prize and we got it.”
The offseason gave the shoulder time to heal, though the bone still protrudes because it is separated from the muscle. Mills has returned for his redshirt junior year more motivated than ever. When the Toreros open the season on Saturday at Cal Poly, the quarterback will have numerous weapons at his disposal and more confidence in how he can use them.
“We have thrown more at him. He’s got a much better grasp of the offense,” said USD’s sixth-year head coach, Ron Caragher, himself a former quarterback. “It’s like an NFL rookie when you have to scale back and lean on the run game more. You’re limited. Now we’re at the point where we can really lean on him. We want to be a multidimensional offense.”
That should not be a problem for the Toreros, who return all of the critical pieces of their receiving corps, as well as running back Kenny James, who ran for 1,208 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
Even with the injury, Mills threw for 2,370 yards and 22 touchdowns (against 13 interceptions), and USD averaged 30 points per game. If Mills stays healthy, there’s reason to believe those numbers will pop even more.
“I rededicated myself to my craft this summer, and I really feel much better,” Mills said.
He took off some weight, trimming to about 188, and spent more time than ever watching game film. At 6 feet, Mills doesn’t have prototypical college size, but Caragher said he makes up for it with good decision-making and impressive accuracy. Mills hit on 61 percent of his passes last season, and one year at Coronado he set a section record by owning a 72-percent mark.
The expectations are even higher now, but Mills insists he wants it that way.
“Absolutely,” he said. “As a third-year starter, it’s my job. They need to be able to open up the playbook fully. … I can see the bigger picture and Coach Caragher has faith in my mental capacity. I’m ready to step up and take another step in that direction.”
By Tod Leonard, The San Diego Union-Tribune