By John Holt
Every new year, life changes occur.
Relationships change, dreams change and careers change.
For the HBU football program, the biggest changes to start 2018 were two new coordinator hires. On January 10, Zach Kittley was named the school’s new offensive coordinator, while Jeff Mills was named the new defensive coordinator.
Kittley, 26, arrived in Houston after spending the previous five seasons working in various coaching roles at Texas Tech University. Meanwhile, Mills joined the Huskies carrying 30 years of experience at the collegiate level.
Although it’s only been a few months since they joined the Husky program, both have already began making an impact, and don’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Becoming an offensive coordinator in the collegiate ranks isn’t a common thing for most 26-year-olds. Yet Kittley is not your ordinary, average Joe. Serving as a graduate assistant during his final three years at Texas Tech, he coached a pair of quarterbacks, Pat Mahomes II and Davis Webb, who were both selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. That highlight alone had Husky quarterback Bailey Zappe ecstatic when he learned Kittley was chosen as the team’s new OC.
“I looked him up,” Zappe recalled. “I saw he was from (Texas) Tech. When he first met with us, he said he worked under (Kliff) Kingsbury. I was like, ‘Kingsbury, that’s a high-profile coach.’ (Texas) Tech has had the best offense in the country for the past few years. He learned from the best.”
From Kittley’s point of view, as soon as he heard about the HBU offensive coordinator opening, he became intrigued.
“I loved the (interview) experience and what the program was all about,” Kittley said. “For myself too, growing as a young coach, I’m 26 years old. This is a great coaching and learning experience.”
HBU head coach Vic Shealy acknowledged that he was targeting a young candidate from a high profile offensive program. From the beginning, Kittley seemed to be the perfect fit for the position.
“Several people who I talked to that I really respected came back and said the rising star out there is Zach Kittley from (Texas) Tech. Coach Kingsbury has given him the quarterbacks for the last year or year-and-a-half, and what he’s done with those guys fundamentally, and his knowledge of that system, is second to none.”
Unlike Kittley, Mills is a veteran coach who accepted his position with the Huskies after being away from the college coaching ranks in 2017. While not being involved in the college game was unique for Mills, it did provide him the opportunity to run a Sports and Wellness Athlete Training (SWAT) private football academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his son, Tyler.
“It was a blessing,” Mills said of his year away from college football. “What is interesting, it stretched me to go out and explore and learn. I played college quarterback, so I was working on teaching and coaching quarterbacks. I was working receiver drills. I actually learned a lot of things technique-wise because I’ve been on the defensive side most of my career.”
What helped Mills land in Houston was his relationship with Shealy and former Husky defensive coordinator, Charlie Camp. Today, the linebackers coach at UTSA, Camp, was a graduate assistant for Mills when he was serving as defensive coordinator at the University of Idaho.
“Circle of life,” Mills said with a laugh. “God opened the door when Charlie left here.”
Mills and his wife, Carmen, had been praying throughout 2017 for an opportunity to return to college coaching. When Shealy contacted him in late December 2017 to discuss the opening, Mills considered he and Carmen’s prayers had been answered.
“My wife and I were praying about working for a Christian leader who is basically serving God and living for an audience of one,” Mills said. “It’s just amazing how God works. I feel like I’m in heaven here on earth as far as coaching football in Texas. My dad had a dream of coaching football in Texas and he never got that opportunity. I know he’s smiling looking down that I have this opportunity that Coach Shealy has afforded me to be in the great state of Texas where football is king.”
Shealy remembered when he was defensive coordinator at Kansas, he visited Mills at the University of Washington. During the visit, he took notice of Mills’ ability to connect with his players.
“He was the secondary coach at the University of Washington,” Shealy said. “When I went out there, and really got a chance to watch him on the field with the players, I realized that this guy was a heck of a lot better coach than I was with these DBs.”
As spring practice period concluded, Kittley and Mills are pleased with what they were able to incorporate and accomplish.
Shealy is proud of what has transpired on both sides of the ball and notes that both new hires share a humbleness in which they work.
“It’s not offense versus defense or defense versus offense,” Shealy said. “What’s fun is just to see the game being taught, and both sides of the ball complimenting each other. We’re in a really good place in our locker room right now with our chemistry. Not that we’ve ever been in a bad place, but I think one of the byproducts of two new coordinators is that there’s a lot of good things going on inside the head and heart of our program. That’s a result of those two guys.”
Kittley and Mills will coach their first game as members of the HBU coaching staff on September 1 at Husky Stadium against Southwest Baptist. Until then, they’ll continue preparing their playbooks, get their units acclimated, and settle into life in Houston.