TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Height, length and speed. Those are the three key words regarding University of Alabama linebacker Christian Miller, who has all three qualities in abundance.
But maturity is a good one too. When the junior says, “I feel I’m right on track,” he’s very convincing, and with good reason.
Even though Miller has yet to start a game for the Crimson Tide, he’s one of the players being counted on to step in and replace one of the seven defensive starters selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. Specifically, he’s at strongside linebacker, the spot Tim Williams used to occupy and then stayed on the field as a pass-rusher even though the Sam is usually replaced by the extra defensive back called Star in Nick Saban’s defensive scheme.
Like Williams, Miller probably won’t be rotated out too often in that situation. He might even be Alabama’s best pass pusher.
“He’s a really great athlete,” said tight end Hale Hentges, one of the numerous offensive players who has trouble blocking Miller in practice.
That part about him has always been known. Miller was considered one of Alabama’s top prospects in the signing Class of 2014, a Parade All-American with a ton of potential and football pedigree. His father, Corey Miller, was a linebacker/defensive end for South Carolina from 1988-1990, who played eight years with the NFL’s New York Giants and one with the Minnesota Vikings.
Having some sort of family football connection is a common trait among the 2017 Crimson Tide. Cornerback Trevon Diggs’ brother Stefon plays for the Vikings. Linebacker Jamey Mosley’s brother is C.J. Mosley of the Baltimore Ravens, and offensive lineman Dallas Warmack’s brother is Chance, who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. C.J. and Chance were part of national championship teams in 2011 and 2012, with Chance also on the 2009 championship team.
Linebacker Ben Davis’ father is Wayne Davis, Alabama’s all-time leading tackler. Quarterback Jalen Hurts’ dad is a coach.
But Miller is his own man, which he even demonstrated during recruiting. Having grown up in Columbia, S.C., in the backyard of his father’s alma mater, there was a lot of pressure for him to stay home and play for the Gamecocks. When assistant coach Brad Lawing, who had been recruiting him, left for Florida, it helped open the door for Alabama.
It wasn’t just the Crimson Tide’s success that appealed to him, but Saban’s defense was ideal for someone of his skill set. Players who were physically between defensive end and linebacker used to be called “tweeners,” but now they’re considered essential to most NFL teams.
Despite weighing just 190 pounds as a junior, Miller played defensive end and notched school-record 14 sacks, along with 126 tackles and 4 forced fumbles. The subsequent year he topped that with 24 sacks and 188 tackles while helping lead Spring Valley High School to an undefeated regular season.
Yet even after he chose Alabama, Miller was in no rush to get on the field. Still weighing in the 210-215-pound range, he knew he wasn’t quite ready physically. Although cutting corners is something he tries to do on the field, he aimed to avoid it in his development.
The idea all along was to take two or three years to build his body up.
“I really just came in with the idea I’m going to come in here, work my tail off and learn as much as I can,” he said. “In the meantime, off the field just work on my degree at the same time, and I’ve done that. I graduate in December, I’m up to 240 now, I know the defense inside and out — Sam, Jack, rabbit, nickel — so it’s paid off, and I still have two years left.
“Honestly this is exactly how I planned it to be and it’s worked very well for me.”
Miller redshirted and then played in 15 games last season as a reserve, but landed a regular role on special teams. He was credited with 16 tackles, 2 sacks and 4 hurries while playing behind Williams, while Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson were also terrorizing opponents.
“Those guys carried themselves well,” Miller said. “They came in and attacked every day. They were definitely leaders on this defense. They spoke up. They always did what they were supposed to do, so basically I kind of just learned how to just have that alpha-dog presence and just speak up and be a leader out there and just play with physicality and toughness … try to be like those guys.”
On paper it’s a tall order, as all three were considered established veterans, plus Saban has openly said he’s looking for those alpha-dog types to step up on the 2017 team. Rashaan Evans, who has taken Foster’s old position, is one of them, and so is the 6-foot-4 Miller.
They aren’t alone, though, as the linebacker corps looks like it will have more of a rotation this fall, getting more players involved. It’s not just to keep everyone fresh — more players have shown they’re ready to contribute.
“Who are the alpha dogs? Shoot, might as well say the whole defense,” Evans said.
The same is true in the pass rush, as Alabama has a variety players who can be utilized, yet it’s already obvious that Evans and Miller are going to be the primary options. They’re both ready for the challenge, but also have that three essential ingredients: height, length and speed.
“I think you guys all know he’s a really great pass rusher,” Hentges said. “He’s really tough to block coming off the edge, and he’s getting stronger every single day. It’s hard to win the C-gap against him because he plays the position really well and he’s a great technician.”
— Christian Miller (@christianmillr) July 20, 2017
All indications are that Miller has had a good offseason and camp, with Saban recently saying, “We’re really happy with his progress.” What the coach had to really like, though, was Miller’s answer to a question from a reporter about sacks, and if it was important to him to lead the Crimson Tide in that statistical category this season.
“Um, not really, because I didn’t really come here to just put up numbers,” he said. “If I wanted to go put up a ton of sacks, I would have gone to a small school.
“Even if I just affect the quarterback, I know I’m getting into his head, and that’s my job, I just want to get in their head.”
That’s maturity. There is no substitute for experience, but it’s the next-best thing and why there isn’t a greater concern about Alabama replacing so many defensive starters.
“I’ve got the weight, strength, speed and a lot more confidence now that I know everything,” Miller said. “I’d probably say I’m just where I feel like I should be, and I’m excited to get started.”