By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
You would pardon Paul Millard if the day came when he simply cracked, such has been his life over the past year.
Anyone who has gone through the Clearasil days of the teenaged years, lived with the failures and success of learning life, of growing up and doing it in public as a high profile high school quarterback seeking to take a step further on the college level understands.
Easy it isn’t especially when, in the middle of it all, as you leave high school early and rush into the West Virginia spring football camp to try and get your career started, only to have your father die.
Shannon Dawson, the West Virginia wide receiver coach, spent a lot of time down Texas way, which is home to Millard. He recruited him, a chore that builds a certain bond between coach and player. He watched what was happening up close and personal.
“I know the family well and how close they are,” he said the other day as he marveled at the way Millard has handled the changes and challenges that life has thrown at him. “No one knows how to handle those situations. I’ve had problem handling death with other people my whole life.”
The coaches were in a fix. They were terribly shorthanded at quarterback, having only three at that moment, two of them behind returning starter Geno Smith just out of high school, not yet down to the two that they now possess as they enter the second week of camp.
They understood that Millard’s family situation had to come first, but they wanted to make sure that in Millard they would have a player who would return from home and be able to get his football and scholastic life back on track.
“The way I would want someone handling it with me is just give me space,” Dawson said. “That’s how we handled it. He went home and Jake (Spavital, the QB coach) talked to him and Dana (head coach Holgorsen) talked to him and I talked to him. We all told him to take as much time as you need.”
They expected to hear that he would do that, that it might be a difficult time and that he was wavering even about returning.
That was not what happened. This is how Dawson remembers it:
“Testament to the kid, the day after the funeral he called and said, ‘Coach, I’m ready to come back.’ I told him to take as long as he wanted but he said, ‘My goal is to play there and contribute to the team.’”
It was a stunningly mature approach.
“Put it this way; he made it easier on everyone by the way he handled it,” Dawson said. “Everyone has dealt with someone close to them dying and as cold as it may seem, the bottom line is life goes on. Next week everyone has to go to work. It’s hard to say when it’s your dad or you brother, but occupy your time is the best way to handle it.”
He came back and went through spring and showed everyone that he could play, that he was going to be capable to back Smith up during his first year in college.
That, however, wasn’t really enough for him.
He proclaimed that his goal, as unrealistic as it might be, was to beat out Geno Smith for the starting job.
“I don’t coach him,” Dawson said. “You’d have to ask Jake or Dana about his actual mindset, but I think everybody in this room knows who our starting quarterback is. And if you don’t, you need to ... well, I don’t know what you need to do.’’
And it’s true, Millard does understand the situation he faces. He just isn’t ready to accept it until it becomes the reality of the moment.
“Right now, I understand I’m the backup quarterback — right now,’’ Millard said. “But the mentality I have to have so I can play is that I have a chance to win the job. And I believe I can play.’’
There’s nothing to make you think that he can’t. Holgorsen has been a wizard dealing with quarterbacks, setting all kinds of offensive records, and he was amazed to find a kid in Texas playing the same kind of offense he ran putting up the same kind of astronomical numbers his teams had put up finding himself not being heavily recruited.
It seemed he was always second or third behind someone else on everyone’s recruiting list, so when WVU and Holgorsen jumped at him, he reached out and grabbed the rope.
He’s ready to understudy Smith, if that’s the case, this year and next, if necessary.
“I’ve read books about quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Tom Brady. In the Drew Brees book he talks about backing up Doug Flutie and just for a couple of years watching what Doug Flutie did on the field,’’ Millard said. “And for me, a year not playing, if that’s the case, I think that can really help you out. And when you do get your chance on the field those years spent just watching and learning can be great.’’
If nothing else, Millard is pushing Smith, something Holgorsen made note of a few days back.
“Geno’s confidence is so I high I have to remind him of (the competition) sometimes,” Holgorsen said. “Last year with Brandon Weeden, his confidence wasn’t very high because he hadn’t played football in eight years. I had to do a lot of patting on the back with him.
“With Geno, we don’t have to do any patting on the back. If he makes a big play, he’s going to let everyone know about it. We’ve got to ground him a little bit.
“Paul’s completion percentage is a lot higher than Geno’s after four days – a lot higher. Geno needs to look at that piece of paper and realize he’s not completing the ball as much as we’d like him to.”
He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder to see if Millard is gaining on him, because that isn’t going to happen, but there is a solid option around for Holgorsen should something go wrong at quarterback.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Twitter @bhertzel.