By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If the present success of the West Virginia University football team rests on the play of senior quarterback Geno Smith, the future success rests on the untapped abilities of freshman Ford Childress and sophomore Paul Millard.
Childress, the son of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ray Childress of the Houston Oilers, is the newest arrival, having enrolled early after a career split between tight end and quarterback at Kincaid High, a Houston football powerhouse.
Millard, of course, did the same thing last year, arriving early for spring ball after having played at Flower Mound High in Texas, where he was the nation’s No. 1 rated quarterback in passing by MaxPreps.
Millard, by nature of having been with the Mountaineers a year and serving as Smith’s backup, is far advanced at present and the plans are that he serve as Smith’s understudy again this season while Childress redshirts.
“It’s in the best interest of our football team (to redshirt),” Coach Dana Holgorsen said last week. “Paul is so far ahead because of the reps he’s had. We’ll let Ford absorb it, take a bunch of reps and in a year from now compete. In a perfect world, yes, we’ll redshirt him, but you know how that goes.”
Smith has been in a position to see both quarterbacks, partly as a role model for them, but in his own mind as a competitor with them, too.
He has been where both of them were and understands what they are going through.
“Ford is still going through the stages; he’s making good throws and he’s been making some bad reads as well. That’s what happens, but as long as he stays focused I think he’ll do fine,” Smith said of Childress.
Smith claims he looks at Millard not as his backup at all.
“I think he’s prepared to be a starter,” he said. “We don’t discuss anything about being a backup. Paul is a guy who understands whatever his role is, he’s going to embrace it. But at the same time, now is the time to compete. I’m all for competition.”
Certainly, those same thoughts are not going through Holgorsen’s mind at present, but Smith knows he has to approach it that way to be at his best and that Millard needs to have the mental approach that his work is not going for nothing.
“Paul’s comfortable, and he’s out there to compete. He’s a guy who was mature from the moment I met him, and that’s very rare for a freshman. That’s something that makes Paul who he is, and I think so far he’s been competing. He’s been pushing me and pushing the second-team offense. Those guys have been getting better and so has Paul,” Smith said.
Millard understands that things have changed since last year.
“It’s different that me and Geno are back after having run the offense for a whole year,” he said. “Even though I don’t play a whole lot in games, I took a lot of reps in practice. Everything was new last year. This year I’m coming on in practice and have more experience. I can go out and check plays.
“When you take a lot of reps and are practicing all the time you start feeling a lot better about how you are going to play,” Millard continued. “Last year, when I came in games, it was never a serious role. Things may not have gone the best when I came into games, but you live and you learn. It’s part of football.”
Certainly things didn’t go well for him when he was inserted into the Orange Bowl and given a chance to gain some high-level experience, only to throw an interception that led to a Clemson touchdown and, with that, to his exit from the game.
“I do look back on that,” he admitted. “I go home and all my brothers make fun of me all the time. They were at the game. My older brother, after the game, said he thought I was Clemson’s best player. It’s fun to joke and kid around. I feel like if I get in a situation like that it probably wouldn’t happen again.”
Things are not like that for Childress, whose background is unique in many ways, not the least of which being he is the son of an All-Pro defensive tackle.
One of his earliest memories, for example, came from when he was 3 years old.
“I remember going down this big water slide at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii when I was 3,” he said.
That, of course, isn’t the kind of memory most kids carry around.
He doesn’t recall much about his father as a Houston Oiler, him having retired when Ford was just 4, but he did have an advantage in some ways.
“He taught me a lot of things. He showed me how to throw the football. He coached me when I was little and has always been there to help me,” Childress said.
And he did it without pressuring his son into playing football.
“He didn’t force me into anything. He wanted me to do what I wanted to do. That was playing football,” he said. “I just fell in love with football and knew I wanted to play it. I had always played other sports but he never pressured me.”
Indeed, in this era when kids are specializing in one sport at a young age, Childress played Little League baseball, basketball, even tennis. And, of course, living in Houston, he played golf, too.
But he was destined to be a football player.
As a sophomore, this 6-foot, 4-inch, 225-pounder was used at tight end because the school already had a quarterback it was satisfied with.
His name was John Ed McGee and he was 5-9 and 160 pounds, a running quarterback who threw only 111 passes in his junior and senior year.
Upon his graduation, Childress went back to QB and began throwing the ball the way they do it out in Texas these days. He threw more than 300 passes as a junior and as a senior threw for 3,171 yards and 41 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.
That, plus being personable and intelligent, was all Holgorsen had to see, tabbing him as a keeper.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.