West Virginia’s star wide receiver, David Sills V, was groomed to play in the NFL from an early age, but not at the position that he currently plays. His father, David Sills IV, believed that his kid had a shot to be great, but at quarterback.
Sills the elder begged QB guru Steve Clarkson to teach the finer points of quarterbacking to his then-10-year-old son — that’s right, 10-year-old son. Clarkson, a famous QB trainer who had worked with the likes of Josh Freeman, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Leinart, obliged and began to work with the young phenom.
Working with the high profile QB coach got Sills V recognition and led to him being offered a scholarship at the University of Southern California at the age of 13. Head coach Lane Kiffin believed that “he just seemed so far advanced for a kid that age” and that if all went well, Sills V “was going to be an elite kid, an elite player.”
Unfortunately, during Sills V’s junior season in high school, he broke his knuckle. That’s when his career path began to change.
The injury affected his throwing motion and began to chip away at the once illustrious QB’s path that his father had intended. Sills V de-committed from USC after the program hired a new head coach, Steve Sarkisian, so Sills V took a scholarship to play QB under Dana Holgorsen. His first season on campus was a red-shirt season and one in which he was learning the system as the scout quarterback. After the 2015 season and with Will Grier committing to WVU, Sills V decided to leave the school to attend JUCO for a shot to earn another scholarship as a starting QB. He transferred to play at El Camino College and his production was good, but it didn’t get him any legit looks at a major university, and that’s when coach Holgorsen called him back up to return to the school as a receiver.
Why receiver? During his freshman campaign, while on the scout team Sills V was tasked with imitating an opposing receiver for the starting defense. He made quite an impression that week, and with a shortage at the position, Holgorsen wanted Sills V to become a skill player. Never did anyone think that Sills V would pick up the position so quickly and produce in the manner that he has over the last couple of seasons.
In Holgorsen’s Air Raid offense over the last two seasons, Sills V registered 212 targets, 121 receptions, and 33 touchdowns, and I think a lot of his success within the system can be attributed to his time as a quarterback.
Looking back, the injury in his junior season could be looked at as a blessing in disguise. The injury forced him to tweak his game, to become more of a dual threat as a quarterback in his senior season, but it also forced him to advance his game from the shoulders up. With a slight hitch in his delivery motion, Sills V was forced to process things faster to overcome the slight deficiencies that had developed, and it is something that has transitioned really well at his new position.
Having never played the position, Sills V has leaned on his phenomenal receiver coach, Tyron Carrier. According to Carrier, Sills V is smart, has great hands, has gotten more physical on the perimeter, and has been a sponge. Sills V has had to work hard to get up to speed on the nuances of the position, and he has committed to doing that through intense film study, according to Carrier. Sills V “can see through film” on how to get better. He then takes those coaching points out onto the practice field, and Carrier stated that “there’s not a rep out there that’s wasted.”
Given Sills’s size, a rail-like 6-foot-4 and 203-pound frame, along with his reported 4.5-ish speed, he has had to master some tricks of the trade to separate, and it typically occurs during his release phase. Teams understand his skill set and have attempted to get physical with him at the line of scrimmage. As a result, he has had to learn how to beat physical press man coverage, and he has done that with patient, sudden, and creative releases.
Carrier said it best: “he doesn’t give away routes, so you don’t know if he’s releasing inside or outside, breaking left or right, nothing. He makes everything look the same to the cornerback — whether he’s going to run past you, or block you, or run a 5-yard stop route.”
This proves to be even more useful in the red zone. In 2018, QB Will Grier threw 14 on-target passes in the red zone in Sills’s direction, and Sills caught 11 of them for nine touchdowns.
This can be attributed to how proficient he is during his releases. He just knows how to give himself a two-way go. Here against Kansas State, the Mountaineers are in a goal-to-go situation and the defender is shading Sills inside to take away the slant route. On the snap, Sills uses his lateral agility to drive inside, and the movement quickly gets him a two-way go. The movement also got the defensive back to think Sills was going inside immediately, so he to stepped outside the frame of his body with his right foot and shot his inside hand in an attempt to disrupt the inside move. But the drive inside hadn’t occurred yet. Now Sills has complete control of the route and leverage. He plants with his right foot and bursts to the middle of the field while using his length and physicality to create separation. The defender stumbles and Sills is able to secure the catch for the touchdown.
Later in the game, the defense takes a much stronger stance to prevent the slant from Sills. This time, with Sills in an extremely wide split, the corner tilts on a 45-degree angle at an inside shade. On the snap, with the agile feet of a boxer, he brings his back foot forward and plants hard inside as if he is going to run a slant. He pumps his arms, takes one step, then drops his hips and drives to the corner. The footwork and salesmanship inside helped Sills gain at least 1-2 yards in field width which is commonly referred to as attacking the ‘short arm’, and it helps Grier when aiming. With the ball in the air, Sills tracks it while using his arm to keep the defender away from his frame. Then he elevates up over the defender, secures the catch, and is able to get his foot inbounds for the touchdown.
He knows how to get the leverage back to neutral then can shift the route stem in his favor. Against Oklahoma State, Sills used what coach Lieberman calls a ‘freeze’ release. Coach Lieberman coaches wide receivers at Don Bosco Prep and is the founder of The Sideline Hustle. Sills “attacked him inside, keeps his feet staggered, giving him the option to just continue running vertical (without having to reset his feet), then uses four quick steps” to set up the outside release. He fends off the defender and shows his hands late to haul in the pass.
Here is another rendition of how he can get an outside release. Watch how he gets the defensive back to kick-step inside, making it difficult for him to accelerate with Sills. The move gains an enormous amount of horizontal separation.
Much like former Bills WR Stevie Johnson, Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, Sills incorporates a lot of basketball movements into his releases. He shows us that on a play later in the game. On the snap, Sills releases laterally and is able to set up his two-way go. The defender is now in serious trouble. Is Sills going to run a fade or an in-breaking route? Sills rhythmically strings a series of shoulder fakes and foot fires together until he plants with his left foot. The movements cause the defender to step outside of his frame with his left foot to protect inside, but it also moves the strike area that the defensive back wants to hit. The DB misses the jam and Sills is able to accelerate inside for the touchdown.
Another crafty release that Sills utilizes is a ‘press release’ move referred to as a step back. With Sills on the line of scrimmage and susceptible to a quick jam by the defensive back, he will take a step back with his front foot to come to balance then release inside. He gets vertical then chops the DB’s hand down to keep his pads clean. Now he has to work back wide to his route stem. He does, stacks the defender, and then separates. He shows his hands late as to not cue the DB and is able to haul in the bucket throw.
Now that he is in the head of the corner, the coordinator has the DB play press with inside leverage to take away any inside release. Sills takes the free outside release, adds a dash of stride manipulation, stacks the defender, and shows off some impressive hand-eye coordination by tracking the ball over his left shoulder to his right. He takes it the distance for the touchdown.
Sills experienced the highs and lows of being in the spotlight at a very early age. Committing to USC at age 13 put an enormous amount of pressure on the young man, but an injury derailed his intended path. Was it unfortunate? According to Sills, it wasn’t: “My story, if you want to say, is nothing I would’ve pictured. But I’m having so much fun now. The most fun I’ve ever had playing football, and I’m not playing quarterback.”
He will never look back with regret. In fact, his transformation is more of a blessing. He got to play receiver in a productive system and was coached by one of the nation’s premier receiver coaches in coach Carrier. He has come a long way as a pass catcher in a short amount of time, and he is gaining more and more confidence. As Holgorsen says below, Sills believes he is the “baddest dude on the field.”
But he still has a lot of growing to do as a receiver. First, he needs to continue to get stronger. Teams will look to stick a physical corner on him and let them body him. At West Virginia, Sills faced a lot of man coverage but fared well. In 2018, 27 receptions and 12 touchdowns Sills earned were versus man coverage, but his adversary at the next level will possess a lot more talent, so he will need to develop other areas of his game. He has flashed very good body control and ability to adjust to passes down the field, but according to Dane Brugler of The Athletic, “he is a work-in-progress as a route runner, he knows what he’s doing on some patterns, but not on others.” But if he wants to succeed on Sundays, he will need to minimize drops. In 2018, Sills dropped 10 passes or 12.3% of his 81 catchable targets.
As Brugler stated, Sills is a “unique player” with a unique story. His story is one that will help him battle through the ups and downs he will experience at the next level.