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He Is a Tower of Power at Banning : Colleges Line Up for Chance at 6-4, 295-Pound Lineman Mills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Lemming’s Prep Football Report rated him as one of the top 125 prospects in the nation, The Sporting News listed him among the top 100 in its college football preview and Fallbrook, Calif.-based scout Dick Lascola ranked him among the top players in Southern California.

But despite the accolades, the talents of Banning High interior lineman Naeem Mills remain somewhat of a mystery.

After all, this is the first season that he has been a full-time starter as an offensive tackle. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Mills started five games at defensive tackle as a sophomore and two at linebacker last season.

In fact, he never played a down of organized football before he arrived at Banning as a sophomore.

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Mills, 17, said he was surprised when he first learned that he had been named among top players in preseason scouting reports.

“I didn’t expect any of it,” he said. “I knew I was going to get a little (attention) but I didn’t expect as much as I’m getting.”

Banning Coach Joe Dominguez always has been cautious about getting too carried away about preseason reports.

“I think sometimes newspapers, magazines and what have you push a player and he hasn’t even played a down of football yet,” Dominguez said. “At Banning, it’s more a case of wait and see for us.”

But Dominguez said Mills is not without talent.

“You can talk about the potential but he still has to do it on the field,” Dominguez said. “He had a so-so junior year, so we’ll just have to see how he develops. Right now he is a starter for us and, if he is a starter for Banning, that means he is a pretty good player.”

Perhaps the main reason for the skepticism about Mills’ talents is his limited experience in the sport.

“I had always played basketball and baseball growing up,” Mills said. “This is my first three years of playing football, so I think I have a lot to look forward to in this sport. Other people have had that advantage of playing junior bantam football when they were younger, but not me.”

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But what Mills does possess, in addition to his size, is strength (he can bench-press 350 pounds), above-average leaping ability and quickness.

He also averaged 16 points as a forward on the junior varsity basketball team and competed in track as a shotputter.

Mills says he has improved his football skills considerably since last season and credits it to an improved work ethic.

“I’ve taken it more seriously because the (past) two seasons I didn’t have good years,” he said. “So I went out and worked hard because I felt I had to prove myself this year. I’m putting it together to try to prove to everybody else that I can do it.”

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The most noticeable change in Mills is that he is considerably stronger than last season, when he played linebacker at 240 pounds.

“Over the summer and off-season I was just working out a lot,” he said. “I gained a lot of weight from working out and eating.”

Mills said he has matured as a player because he knows this is his last chance to make an impact at Banning.

“I think I’ve learned a lot in the three years I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ve learned how to fight pain. I don’t ever let that stop me anymore. I don’t ever quit because I’m a senior now and I feel I have to set more of an example.”

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College scouts apparently are interested in Mills because of his size and athleticism. He has received letters and phone calls from Washington, Colorado, USC and Oregon, among others.

“I get calls at least every other night,” he said. “It hasn’t been too much pressure for me (so far). There will probably be more pressure on me when it comes time to sign, but I’m just taking it as it comes.”

Mills, who expects to play mostly as an offensive tackle this season, is being recruited as a defensive tackle.

“I played offensive and defensive tackle in my first game (again Kahuku of Hawaii on Sept. 7 in Honolulu), but I found out it was too hard for me to do,” he said. “So I’ll probably just play offensive tackle most of the time now.”

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Said Dominguez: “Right now he’s a starter on our offensive line and he played well in our opener. We’ll just have to wait and see how he does when he gets a chance to play defense a little more.”

The biggest obstacle for Mills may be his grades. He has about a 2.0 grade-point average, although he has been working more diligently in the classroom than he did when he first arrived at Banning.

“I just have to keep working hard on it,” he said. “I know that’s what I have to do to make it so now I just have to do it.”


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