ND’s Rylie Mills: This kid can play

The Irish defensive lineman stands out athletically and musically.

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Wisconsin v Notre Dame

Defensive lineman Rylie Mills is second on the Irish in sacks, tackles for loss and QB pressures.

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Hercules. Big Hefty. Freak.

Those are a few nicknames Notre Dame defensive lineman Rylie Mills earned from teammates and media in the offseason because of his gargantuan size, strength and agility.

At 6-5 and 292 pounds, the Lake Bluff native benches 420 pounds and moves at a top speed of 19 mph, on par with many college defensive backs and wide receivers. 

Mills’ elite measurables earned him a place on one sports site’s 2022 college football freaks list, which features players with unique physical abilities.

“I’ve never played with someone that big and that strong who can move that well,” said Irish edge rusher Isaiah Foskey, a projected first-rounder in the 2023 NFL Draft.

Mills anchors a defensive line that ranks 16th of 131 FBS teams in sacks per game. His size enables him to line up at defensive end, three-technique and nose guard depending on which matchup Irish coaches plan to exploit. He’s second on the team in sacks (2œ), tackles for loss (4œ) and quarterback pressures (16).

Parents Troy and Kristina first saw greatness in their youngest son at a Lake Bluff Elementary School talent show, long before he made fellow college athletes feel small.

At 11, Mills stood on stage already a foot taller than his peers and picked an electric guitar to riffs from AC/DC classics “Back in Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” He ended the performance with the melody from Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” imitating lead guitarist Slash by playing behind his back.

“All the other parents were not only shocked but were screaming,” Troy Mills said.

A promising showman, Mills performed at popular Chicago venues such as the House of Blues and played the drums and piano. He took improv classes at The Second City and starred in plays at the Gorton Community Center, easily fitting into the roles of larger-than-life characters such as Baloo in ‘‘The Jungle Book’’ and the Cowardly Lion in ‘‘The Wizard of Oz.’’ 

He boxed in middle school, fighting in a few bouts and committing to 5 a.m. workouts at Warehouse Gym & Boxing Club in Highwood. 

Mills already was a physical marvel by his freshman year at Lake Forest High School. For football, he trained at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park with former Notre Dame linebacker Kerry Neal, who quickly informed Mills’ parents that their lives soon would change. 

“We could have traveled hundreds of miles,” Neal said, “and we weren’t going to see many kids built like him.”

Over the next 18 months, Mills received dozens of offers to play college football at top programs, including Ohio State, Georgia, LSU, Penn State and Michigan. His parents purchased him a second cell phone to field nonstop recruiting calls and texts, a tip from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Before his senior year, the Sun-Times named him the top Chicago-area defender. He enrolled at Notre Dame the next January, rooming with quarterback Drew Pyne, putting traditional football enemies in the same dorm room. In high school, Mills had frequently worn a T-shirt that read, “I Hate QBs.”

“We told him to put that shirt away,” Troy Mills said.

Three years later, Mills and Pyne are still roommates and good friends. Rock ’n’ roll stardom might be a forgotten dream, but music is still an important part of Mills’ life, particularly during difficult times. 

The Irish experienced a meteoric fall to start the season. Notre Dame began 2022 ranked fifth, but after losses to Ohio State and Marshall, the Irish fell out of the top 25 — their biggest two-week drop since 1981.

With Twitter and talking heads buzzing with criticism, Mills put down his phone, turned off the TV and picked up his preferred instrument: Pyne’s acoustic guitar.

“It’s nice to shut that off and play guitar,” Mills said. “It’s meditative.”

The Irish won five of their next six games and will face No. 5 Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. Foskey and projected top-10 Tigers defensive linemen Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee get most of the attention. 

Mills has the talent to be in the same conversation soon, even if he’s too humble to admit it.

“You can get lost in what your potential is,” Mills said. “I just try to be present with where I am and take it day by day.”

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