Northwest’s Joshua Gills let out a few coughs into the December air during Wednesday’s practice, visibly nursing a cold that has nagged him all week. This has not been a good week to be under the weather.
It was about 48 hours before Gills and his teammates were set to take the field at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for the Maryland 4A title game against undefeated Suitland, and the senior did everything in his power to practice. He wore a thermal head-wrap underneath his helmet and a puffy wind breaker under his shoulder pads, with baggy cargo sweat-pants draped over his cleats.
“I’ve been doing what I can to get better,” Gills said.
Gills adjusted to the elements just fine — he’s had to adapt on the football field his whole career. When the team needs a punt blocked, coaches go to Gills. When they need him to replace a fatigued quarterback for a drive, or step in for a few plays at running back after the starter breaks his helmet, or practice through the flu, they go to Gills. And when they need a big play Friday night, they will most likely turn to Gills, who could be at any position in the team’s first state title appearance since 2004.
“Wherever we need him, he’ll go,” said Northwest junior running back E.J. Lee. “You can trust him.”
This season alone, Gills has started at quarterback, cornerback and wide receiver. He has caught nearly 500 yards of passes, rushed for another 600, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and blocked three punts, one of which he returned for a score. After Friday’s title game, he will leave as the most prolific receiver in school history, but also as one of the most versatile players the county has seen in years.
“I’ve always been that guy that’s been all over the place,” Gills said. “So wherever I am for the time being, I’m focused on that position. Honestly, I need to know all the positions, because I could be playing them at any moment. ”
Several schools have visited Gills at practice during the Jaguars’ playoff run over the past month, and after they have left, Gills has pondered if he will ever have a natural position. Delaware wants him to play cornerback. Bucknell wants him to play running back. Johns Hopkins is recruiting him at wide receiver.
“It may not have benefited him to be moved around so much, because when college recruiters come in, they ask the same question: where do you see him playing in college?,” Northwest offensive coordinator Justin Sickeri said. “Anywhere, really. He could play corner in college. I don’t know.”
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Gills was thought to be a tight end entering high school. The current coaching staff, led by former All-Met linebacker Mike Neubeiser, took over at the school four years ago when Gills was a freshman, and Sickeri, the junior varsity coach at the time, quickly put him at quarterback after watching him casually throw the ball to a teammate during the first day of practice.
“That’s all I needed to see,” Sickeri said. “People joke, because next year will be my first year without him playing for me, and we’ve had some pretty good offenses even when I was on JV. And the question is, can we still have a good offense when I don’t have him?”
In what has been an electric, unusual career, Gills never planted roots at one position.He set the school’s single season receptions record with 55 grabs as a sophomore, then ran for over 700 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. He started this season at quarterback, but it was quickly apparent that Northwest would need to use him everywhere on offense, defense and special teams. The emergence of sophomore quarterback Mark Pierce down the stretch (Pierce has thrown for over 800 yards and 12 touchdowns in three playoff wins) has given the Jaguars the luxury of keeping Gills primarily at receiver late in the season. He had one of his best games of the year in last week’s 4A semifinal win over Paint Branch, catching nine passes for 162 yards and one touchdown.
But Gills also played the entire game at defensive back, returned kicks and played quarterback for a few snaps late in the fourth quarter. He plans to be in on nearly every play Friday night against Suitland.
Using Gills as a utility man has always presented a challenge for Sickeri — there have been times over the past four years that he and the staff didn’t know what to do with Gills’ gifts. One minute they were using him at quarterback, the next he was in the slot, the next he was in the backfield.
Gills said running back might suit him best in college, but he’s never second-guessed himself about his high school career, he said. Moving around constantly hasn’t stunted his growth either. He plans to show off that diverse skill set one more time Friday night in Baltimore, hoping to hand Suitland its first loss of the season in the most important game of his career.
“Just natural ability, I’ve never questioned it, never wondered,” Gills said. “Just kind of went out there and did me.”