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Mills' season has been 'pretty special'

Finals Preview: Kieren Jack - September 2, 2016 Midfielder Kieren Jack looks ahead to the 2016 AFL Finals Series.
Calllum Mills celebrates kicking his first goal in AFL football.
I haven't seen a kid have an impact like he has in his first year.
Kieren Jack

Callum Mills isn't just the raging favourite to take out this year's Rising Star award – he's the poster boy for the 2016 evolution of the Sydney Swans.

Mills, 19, is one of seven young Swans to make his debut in a season of change under John Longmire, settling into his role in the AFL's best defence with ease and helping to transform the side after the departure of premiership players Adam Goodes, Rhyce Shaw, Lewis Jetta, Mike Pyke and Craig Bird.

The half-back, taken by the Swans from their academy with pick three of last year's NAB AFL Draft after Melbourne launched an unsuccessful bid for the Sydney local, averaged 19.4 possessions and 3.5 rebound 50s in his 20 games this year.

What makes the outstanding start of Mills' career even more impressive is the fact that he was a gun midfielder at underage level and had not played in defence until he arrived at the Swans.

"I haven't seen a kid have an impact like he has in his first year," Swans co-captain Kieren Jack said this week.

"He's not just ticking a box each week either, he's been consistently among our better players, and it's been pretty special what he's done.

"We'd heard about him obviously and seen bits of him, but he didn't play much last year so we were a bit unsure about his body and where he'd fit in.

"He naturally reads the play really well, which is what he probably learned from playing in the midfield as a junior.

"He's also been lucky to have had Henry Playfair as his backline coach, plus Heath Grundy and Jarrad McVeigh teaching him how to play down there.

"But at half-back it all happens in front of you, and given he's such a smart player, it suits him really well."

The Swans' batch of experienced stars has maintained their elite level this season, with Josh Kennedy, Lance Franklin, Luke Parker, Dan Hannebery and Dane Rampe named All Australian; Grundy, Tom Mitchell, Kurt Tippett and Nick Smith extremely consistent; and Jack and McVeigh leading the club with class.

Their guidance has overseen the new influx of talent in 2016 and Jack said it has been the perfect mix to allow the club to rebound from the loss of so many old heads.

"There was certainly a lot of question marks over us at the end of last year, which was probably fair enough, given the key players we lost," he said.

"To the football club's credit, our drafting and the way they've trained the young guys that have come in, it's been almost seamless in the way that they've fitted in.

"The younger guys have brought their own skills and their own style, and it's really exciting.

"The way they trained and we trained over the pre-season gave me great confidence that we were going to compete, regardless of what outsiders said.

"Internally we were always confident in the list but you never really know until you execute, and I think for the majority of the year we've been consistent at that, which has been pleasing."

Mills (20 games), forwards George Hewett (20) and Tom Papley (16) and tall backman Aliir Aliir (10) have been the debutants to have the most impact at senior level this year. Sam Naismith and Xavier Richards have been patient in the reserves for multiple seasons and become key components of Longmire's 22 during the second half of this year.

Jack said watching the development of the club's younger players has been fantastic.

"Two years ago in a pre-season intra-club game, Aliir (Aliir) played on 'Buddy' (Franklin), who's not a bad person to learn from, and he did really well," he said.

"It was probably the first sign he showed that he could be a quality key defender and I still think he's got plenty of upside in him.

"Tom Papley sort of came from nowhere and he's been incredible, and guys like George Hewett have slowly progressed and grabbed the opportunity when it finally came.

"Credit to those guys, they're driven and mentally tough, but they've also come into a team that hasn't expected too much of them and they've got some key experienced players steering them around."