ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Tech star Dedrick Mills was kicked off the team Friday, having violated athletic department rules in what was essentially a third strike for the dynamic but troubled running back.
The stunning announcement came with the season opener against Tennessee less than three weeks away.
Coach Paul Johnson did not specify what rule was broken, but stressed that it was different than two suspensions Mills served a year ago — totaling three games — for violating team rules.
"Last year he got suspended for a couple of football violations, football team rules," Johnson said. "This was a GTAA (Georgia Tech Athletic Association) rule. So it's set rules. When you break 'em, the punishment is pretty standard."
The coach said it didn't involve a legal matter or a violation of NCAA rules.
Still, it was clear the Yellow Jackets had run out patience with a player who was highly productive in the triple-option offense but struggled away from the field.
"He's a good kid," Johnson said. "He loves to play football. He just made some poor choices."
Mills was the Georgia Tech's top returning offensive player after a stellar freshman season. The B-back rushed for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns in just nine games, capping the year with a 31-carry, 169-yard performance against Kentucky to earn MVP honors in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
But he also missed three games for disciplinary reasons.
Mills was forced to sit out the opener against Mercer, followed by a two-game suspension late in the season that kept him from playing in victories over Virginia Tech and Virginia. Johnson never specified what rules were broken.
A few weeks ago, Mills vowed to reporters that he would avoid trouble this season.
Instead, he didn't even make it to the first game — a prime-time matchup against the Volunteers on Sept. 4 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new $1.5 billion facility in downtown Atlanta.
"We're disappointed for him. We're disappointed for his teammates," Johnson said. "But we've got to move on. It's next man up. We've got to go on and get ready to play. It's really no different than if a guy had gotten injured out there and the next guy had to play."
He insisted that losing Mills would not change his expectations for a team coming off a nine-win season that included six victories in the final seven games.
The main issue on offense had been settling on a quarterback. Four players are competing for the starting job, but Johnson hasn't been in a rush to settle who will fill the No. 1 spot.
Now, the coach has another big hole to fill.
Third-year sophomore KirVonte Benson would be the most likely candidate to take Mills' place, but he's been slowed by an injury during the preseason. Freshmen Jerry Howard and Jordan Ponchez-Mason, along with sophomore Quaide Weimerskirch, are also in the mix.
Weimerskirch has one carry for zero yards in his college career. None of the others have run the ball in a college game.
Former starter Marcus Marshall, who rushed for 624 yards last season, decided to transfer when it became apparent that Mills had supplanted him on top of the depth chart.
As it turned out, the Yellow Jackets won't have either of them this season.
Nevertheless, Johnson said he's confident that someone will step up to fill the key spot, which handles most of the running plays up the middle that free up things on the outside. He noted that Mills missed a total of four games last season — and Georgia Tech won them all, while posting better rushing numbers than the nine games he played.
"With a year under his belt in the system, I expected him to have a great year," Johnson said. "Now, I expect the other guy to have a great year, whether it's KirVonte or Quaide or Jerry or Mason. Whoever it is, whoever gets in there and plays, I expect them to have 1,000 yards. That's pretty much what that position is."
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said it will still be difficult to stop such a unique offense, no matter who gets the bulk of the carries.
"They have a system obviously that's very challenging," Jones said. "We prepare the same way, and it doesn't affect our mindset or how we look at things."
As for Mills, there was no immediate word on where he might end up.
If he transfers to another NCAA top-division school, he'll have to sit out the season, or he could play right away for a Football Championship Subdivision team. Junior college is another possibility.
Johnson said he would likely grant Mills a full release to sign with any other school.
"I would try to help him if I can," the coach said. "For the most part, I can't think of anybody I would block. Maybe somebody we play this year, but other than that, probably not."
Jacksonville State is the only FCS school on Georgia Tech's schedule this season.
"Hopefully," Johnson said, "it works out for him, he learns from it and he'll be very successful wherever he ends up."
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee and Associated Press Writer Andy Buhler in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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