PROVO — This time last year, Craig Bills was working the streets of Ventura, Calif., as a Spanish-speaking, white-shirted LDS missionary. There, he sought the tiny miracles from God thrown his way every day.
This week, Bills is trying to find his way on the football field as a sophomore defensive back at BYU. He looks to put the hammer on offensive players and he yearns for the practices when Bronco Mendenhall gives him the green light to collide with somebody.
Bills, the former star safety at Timpview High School, is in a heated battle with Mike Hague for playing time at free safety for the right to back up starter Joe Sampson. He's also gotten some time at kat safety, and when Mendenhall calls for a nickel-back formation, he's trying to grab a spot on the field in that alignment, too.
So far, so good.
Bills will be tough to keep off the field, even if his position coach Nick Howell says he's swimming in the deepest talent pool Howell's ever had at BYU.
"I feel great and I'm loving it," said Bills this past week. After a two-year absence serving his LDS mission, he believes he's back in shape.
While on his mission, Bills lost 25 pounds.
For a defensive back, losing 25 pounds is a death sentence. It takes away leverage. If much of it is lean muscle mass, you are weaker, slower and it is tough to make plays.
He returned this past spring and worked hard to regain that weight. He also passed a test that credited his academic profile with 16 hours of Spanish language credit — all A's and B's.
"I feel great. I haven't had missionary legs at all," Bills said. "I got 20 pounds back and I got my strength back. I have to work on my squat strength in my legs but my clean and bench lifts are back to where they were before my mission."
Howell has spent the first two weeks of fall camp testing and evaluating Bills with the others. After trying Bills behind kat (strong safety) starter Daniel Sorensen, and then behind free safety Sampson, he's experimented with Hague, Bills and Skye PoVey at Sampson's position.
"I think I tried too much, too fast, too early, having Craig do free (safety), kat and nickel," said Howell. "So after the first week, the focus has been on one spot (free safety) and he's been more assignment sound.
"Craig's athletic ability is definitely there, so are his fundamentals, and he's aggressive, so I'd say right now it's all about getting the assignments down."
Bills says he's noticed a difference in BYU's defense after a two-year absence and it has to do with unity. When he left, he was coached by Jaime Hill; now it is Howell.
"It seems the players know more about the defense," Bills said. "Coach Mendenhall has stayed the same with his goals and mindset, but I feel more of a unity. The difference is atmosphere."
Personally, Bills said he knows BYU's defensive scheme better now in fall camp than he ever did after a full year as a freshman. He credits part of it with better study habits developed as a missionary, the other part from help from coaches.
When one thinks of Craig Bills, physical play comes to mind.
He wants it no other way.
I asked him why he played football, obviously following in the footsteps of older brothers KC and Kevin. He said it was his love of the game.
"I love football. I love the competitive nature of football. I love seeing something from beginning to end, the progression of it," he said. "We are here early in the morning until night. We see ourselves on film then go out and try to learn from it and you actually see progression and put what you learn to the test — love it."
The other thing?
Yes, it is using his own body to physically move others.
"I love hitting," he said. "I love coming up and making a hit, the collision. I just love it."
Bills says all he learned as a missionary is helping him on the field — well, except for the hitting part.
"It's about going into fall camp and not having everything go your way," he said. "But you have to find a blessing, something that is put before you, something for you to improve on and become better, something to get done. It all ties in."
And so it does.