On the first day of Penn football's preseason camp his freshman year, Brandon Mills got the nickname ‘Dad’ from a veteran teammate. At the time, the name was just a joke on his stature and beard. But as the name caught on, it quickly became evident that the senior linebacker was also a hard hitter with an inspiring work ethic.
“Since he’s gotten here he’s been a mentor and he’s been a leader,” linebackers coach Jon Dupont said about Mills.
A chemical engineer, Mills serves as the barometer for the defense with the fire and drive that he brings to every practice and snap.
“He’s a guy that we kind of look to as a defense,” senior linebacker Colton Moskal explained. “He’s always out there. He’s always giving it his all.”
As a result of that energy, Mills has gotten a reputation as an old-school type of player. Mills doesn’t lead the team in tackles or interceptions, but his presence on the field is felt by both his teammates and the opposing ball carriers he routinely hits at full speed.
“A lot of people are flashier and a lot of our guys are smaller and quicker,” Mills admits about himself. “But I’m one the biggest guys out here and everyone knows that I’m not our fastest guy but I’ll run to the ball and I’ll hit you as hard as I can. I don’t hold anything back. I come out here to play.”
That internal motor is what helped him force four turnovers his sophomore year in 2015 and has contributed to his expanding role over his four seasons at Penn.
After his freshman season, when the Quakers finished sixth in the conference and only won two games, Mills remembers making a commitment to improving — not just as an individual, but as a unit.
Mills recalls talking with fellow senior Louis Vecchio about the struggles the team had that season and how they could put it behind them.
“Everyone had this entire mindset that we’re not going to lose anymore,” Mills recalled. “We’re tired of being the bottom of the pile. We want to be top dogs. We want our respect. And I think we got it.”
Those new goals were accompanied by a coaching change.
“With the new coaching staff coming in everyone had a new learning curve, you had to learn a whole new defense, get used to trusting new people,” Mills said. “In the first year we started buying into the system and it was nice to see everyone finally trusting each other and trusting the coaches.”
Mills, however, faced a steeper curve than most of his teammates during the transition. He wasn’t just learning a new defense, he was doing so while shouldering the heavy workload of a chemical engineer and all of the difficulties that entails.
While about half of his recruiting class is no longer on the team, Mills’ commitment to the team, and to his studies, has risen above the rest. His teammates notice that.
“Whether he’s been studying the night before up until three in the morning or hasn’t slept in two days, he always comes to practice with a smile on his face ready to work, and that really pushes the other guys to really bring it up to his level,” Moskal noted. “We kind of form around him as a defense and are just trying to bring that same energy as him.”
Mills takes the challenges of balancing football and engineering in stride. Despite being one of only four engineers on the team, he has succeeded in both disciplines.
“There have been times where that I’ve just wondered how much I could do better or study a little bit more if I wasn’t at practice,” Mills conceded. “But, there’s pros and cons of it. It definitely keeps me on top of everything. If I wasn’t playing I wouldn’t know what to do with all that free time.”
Junior wideout Mike Akai is one of the three other guys who knows what Mills faces every day.
“There’s morning practices and lifts, and you come in with three hours of sleep, and you just have to find a way to get through it and make it to that next nap,” he said.
But if Mills is coming to practice tired, he doesn’t show it.
“He’s always done everything we’ve asked of all our players and then some. He never makes an excuse for anything,” Dupont remarked. “He’s the ultimate student athlete in my mind.””
In fact, despite his busy schedule, Mills often goes the extra mile.
“Always, when he’s not in class, when he’s not studying, he’s up there watching film,” Moskal said. “He knows his stuff on the field. He pushes it to the limit.”
Soon, balancing that schedule won’t be as difficult. Time is ticking away on his final season. And with the Quakers sitting at 2-2, another conference title could still be within grasp.
“I’ve been doing this for three years. “This is my last year, so I’m going to enjoy every second of it.”
Mills only has six games left before he becomes a full-time engineer. He’ll undoubtedly leave an impact on each one.
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