Before he earned the chance to play wide receiver for the Jets on Sundays, chase records at Baylor on Saturdays, or fly past opposing defenses in small-town East Texas on Friday nights, Denzel Mims was the quarterback of the future at Daingerfield High School.
Until one rainy Thursday night in 2012, when the Tigers’ junior varsity team was in need of a spark to win a sloppy game at Mount Vernon.
Mims was a tall, skinny freshman quarterback who was still working through his fundamentals as a passer, though his talent and athleticism were undeniable. So on the last play of the game, the coaching staff decided to put in the backup quarterback and line up Mims at wide receiver.
“We throw a little slant to [Mims] and he goes about 80 yards for a touchdown,” former Daingerfield varsity coach, Aric Sardinea, told The Post.
“I looked at my offensive coordinator and said, ‘He’s going to play receiver for now on.’ ”
It was a prescient call.
Eight years later, Mims is the newest hope to become the Jets’ big playmaker. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound target fell to them in the second round of last month’s draft, where general manager Joe Douglas drafted him with the No. 59 pick. If Mims is able to conquer his latest challenge the way the Jets believe he can — and the way he has with all the others that have come his way — Mims could be catching passes from Sam Darnold for years to come.
Sitting on a couch between the two women who raised him — his grandmother, Glinda, and mom, Peggy — Mims got the life-changing call from Douglas on the second night of the draft. Douglas said he was looking for a playmaker and asked if he had found one.
“Most definitely you found one,” Mims said. “Everyone else is gonna pay for it.”
The chip on Mims’ shoulder was there even before he had a longer wait than he hoped for on draft night.
He grew up in Daingerfield, a small town with a population of about 2,380. Its high school has a proud football tradition — six-time state champs, including the 1983 team that is regarded as one of the best to ever play in Texas, and now has seven players drafted into the NFL with a handful of others making it as undrafted free agents, including Mims’ cousin and uncle.
Nevertheless, there’s a small-school mentality that comes with growing up in a town that has an area of 2.4 square miles and a high-school enrollment of 296 students.
“As a recruiter … you can still miss a kid. You can drive right by Daingerfield High School trying to get to Longview High School,” Sardinea said, referring to the alma mater of Chris Ivory, Trent Williams and, among others, Matthew McConaughey.
They eventually found Mims, though.
The youngest of four football-playing brothers had moved on from quarterback by his sophomore year, but was still playing other positions than just wide receiver, where he had battles against future first-round cornerback Jeff Gladney. Mims was also a rising talent at safety and cornerback, so much so that Sardinea and college recruiters once thought either position could be his ticket to the NFL.
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It was Mims’ work on the track that helped his recruiting take off. In May of his junior year, Mims ran a blazing 200-meter dash in 21.30 seconds to win the Class 3A state championship. Days later, Texas Tech was the first school to offer him, with Arkansas State, Tulsa and Texas State soon to follow.
Along the way, Baylor assistant Randy Clements had gotten word of a tall, lanky, athletic kid in Daingerfield who was a bit of “a late bloomer,” he said. The staff looked up his track times, but they weren’t flashy until Mims went deeper into the postseason. They realized he was only running as fast as he needed to — it just took some better competition to push him to better times.
That June, Mims attended Baylor’s satellite camp in Marshall, Texas. His performance confirmed what the state track time suggested.
“He was just completely dominant,” said former Baylor assistant coach Tate Wallis, who helped lead Mims’ recruitment. “He could really run and go get the ball and nobody could cover him one-on-one. … Just a monster of an athlete.”
Baylor offered him a scholarship and Mims committed that weekend, eventually signing even after Oklahoma made a late, hard push to get him.
By his senior year, Mims was no longer much of a secret. Sardinea had to get creative to get the ball in his hands. That meant Mims sometimes lining up at quarterback or running back so defenses wouldn’t double-team him. Sometimes, it didn’t even matter if they did.
“He had gotten to the point where I started using him with the mindset I had [with] Marquise Goodwin,” said Sardinea, who was the offensive coordinator at Rowlett High School for Goodwin, now a receiver with the Eagles. “When we would throw the ball to Marquise, it wasn’t even a match, whether people would double-team him or not. … Just take your steps, take your drops and throw it up to Denzel.”
Mims arrived at Baylor in 2016, just as the program was mired in a sexual assault scandal. He decided to stay when many others were leaving, playing his freshman year under interim coach Jim Grobe before Matt Rhule came in and began to clean things up.
Before Rhule and his staff got to know Mims, they were immediately struck by his physical traits such as his length, speed and catch radius — measurables that at the NFL Scouting Combine garnered comparisons to Julio Jones. They all got put in action his sophomore year when Mims flourished, making 61 catches for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns.
After playing through a broken hand in his junior season, Mims bounced back with a big senior year, catching 66 passes for 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns. As Baylor surged into the Top 25, Mims was there to make plenty of big catches in crunch time. That included a pair of touchdown catches in a triple-overtime win at TCU — one on fourth-and-5 from the 20 in the second OT to extend the game and then the game-winner, leaping up to grab a fade route with a cornerback draped over him — to keep the Bears undefeated at 9-0.
“It just seemed like this year, any time we really needed a play to be made, the ball kind of found him and he made it,” former co-offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas said.
Mims, a new father to a baby girl, grew into a leadership role as well, often letting his work ethic speak for itself. It led to Rhule saying last November that Mims had “come as far as any player I’ve ever been around.”
“I just think he’s one of those young people that answers the call, man,” Rhule said after Mims’ big game in a win over Texas to clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship. “He answers the challenge. You can challenge Denzel. He steps up. Man, he fights for it. He finds a way to make it happen.”
Wherever Mims’ football journey has taken him, his grandmother has been by his side.
Glinda Mims worked at Daingerfield High School and was always around whenever he needed something. She was the person Mims had to talk with before he committed to Baylor and she is often the loudest voice in the stands at Mims’ games.
“His grandmother’s his rock,” Sardinea said.
Mims’ humility — and his acts of kindness, like the night Baylor had rented out a bowling alley, when Mims saw a father and son being turned away and instead invited them to join his lane — comes with a side of tenacity when the lights turn on.
“There’s something burning inside of him,” Wallis said.
Perhaps it’s the ingrained small-school mentality, the journey where nothing was given to him, or perception that he’s just always been underrated.
Now, Mims has the only thing he’s ever needed to succeed: an opportunity to shine.
“Going from Daingerfield to Baylor to New York is a huge jump for him, but just being the type of person he is with the character he has, I believe he’ll be fine there,” Sardinea said. “I think the Jets are getting a tremendous young man. I just hope they can build around him and give him those opportunities to lead.”
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