Louisville at Kentucky | 7 pm | ESPNU

Freshman lineman Miller fills Kentucky's need with brains, brawn

Freshman shows early he can get it done

jtipton@herald-leader.comSeptember 14, 2011 

Except for blocking on extra-point kicks, freshman Darrian Miller did not play against Western Kentucky in Kentucky's opening game this football season.

By Week 2, injuries to UK's offensive line elevated Miller to starting right tackle.

"OK," Miller said he told offensive line coach Mike Summers. "If that's what you want, it'll get done."

It'll get done?

"I will be the one to step up," Miller explained. "If that's what you need, I got you."

This was no youthful bravado, as evidenced by his play in Kentucky's victory over Central Michigan last week.

"We think he has a chance to be a real talent," UK Coach Joker Phillips said of Miller at the weekly news conference Monday. Then Phillips touched on the surprise element associated with a freshman lineman advancing so quickly.

"No one in this room would have guessed Darrian Miller would have started a game this year," Phillips told reporters. "I'm happy to have him there because the guy has a chance to be a talent, and he gives us a chance to have a lot of depth."

To the untrained eye, offensive line play may seem no more complicated than large packages of carbon-based matter trying to impede the path of similar-sized onrushing masses.

Miller, not exactly tiny at 6-foot-5 and 297 pounds, shows that brainpower has as much, or more, to do with effective play as brawn.

"It's vital in the offensive line that those guys can think, assimilate the information, understand what they're looking at," Summers said Tuesday. "And also take what I tell them in terms of adjustments and duplicate that on the field. It requires a tremendous amount of mental toughness as well as mental capacity. The only way he's been able to step in there and play is because of his ability to understand what's going on."

In Summers' 30-plus years of coaching offensive linemen, Miller is only the second freshman to start.

"The first one crashed and burned," Summers said. "So I'm very pleased to see we got through the game."

Summers defined crash-and-burn as having to remove that freshman starter at Arkansas (in either 2008 or 2009) after 11 plays. "He couldn't get from the huddle to the line of scrimmage with any kind of efficiency," Summers said.

Playing and practicing next to All-Southeastern Conference guard Larry Warford helps Miller's efficiency.

As Miller explained, he leans on Warford for advice, much more often in practice than in the game last weekend.

"Duke, what am I supposed to do here?" he said he'd ask Warford as the line gets into its three-point stance.

To which, Warford might say, "Block the end."

This prompted the grateful Miller to politely say, "All right. Thank you."

All the while, the defense presumably is listening, too.

"It happened pretty rarely in the game," Miller said. "I was pretty focused. But sometimes in practice, when we've got a specialty play, I go blank."

Thinking as much as grunting goes into line play, Miller said.

"It's actually straight away from being a physical brute," he said. "Being physical is a big part of it. But being able to think on the fly has become more of the position."

Miller's interest in biochemical engineering speaks to a cerebral approach to college as well as football.

"It has a lot of different subfields," Miller said of biochemical engineering's appeal. "I'm actually looking at cell genetics. I'm interested in the small intricacies of life."

College prep classes at Bryan Station High spurred Miller's interest in "the way biology and chemistry mesh. The whole molecular side."

Miller acknowledged that meshing the time demands of football and an academic interest in biochemical engineering can be difficult.

"I have to sacrifice my social life," he said. "But that's fine. I have plenty of time to socialize after I've gotten my degree."

Miller is unsure of how he might use a degree in biochemical engineering except to "help the world the best I can."

Of more immediate concern, of course, is helping UK's football team.

Miller's academic interest put that possibility in place. In addition to Kentucky, he also received recruiting interest from Alabama and Auburn.

"It was a real confidence boost," he said. "But I felt those schools weren't exactly right for me considering what I wanted to do. I'm not interested in schools just because they're a big football school. I like to focus on academics."

As for line play, Miller said he relies on technique at this stage even though he's increased his bench press from about 200 to 300 pounds since the recruiting process began a year ago.

"It's more about hand placement," he said. "When you push and how you push and where your feet are when you push. It's a lot more than straight-out moving somebody."The UK coaches gave Miller good grades for the Central Michigan game with one exception. "I didn't get whipped," he said of his demerit. "I got tripped."

He moved to block a blitzing linebacker. But when the linebacker changed course and retreated into pass coverage, Miller was late getting in front of a defensive lineman.

"When you know what you're doing, it's fun," Miller said of being an offensive lineman. "But if you have no idea and you're getting downright whipped by the other person, it becomes a lot less fun."

'So-so' practice

Phillips lamented what he called a "so-so" practice on Tuesday.

"Good thing we've got tomorrow, you know," Phillips said when asked about the practice. "It was so-so. Did some good things. This is the first day of putting in a game plan, so, obviously, you're going to have some mistakes. Good thing we have two more days to prepare physically."

Phillips emphasized the need for better preparation during the week leading to Saturday's game against in-state rival Louisville.

"We have to get better than that," he said. "A lot better than that.

"But, usually, when you're putting in a new game plan, and understanding different looks you're going to get on both sides of the ball, you see some of that on Tuesday. But we expect to be a lot sharper than that."

Injury update

Phillips said he hoped that one of the two sidelined offensive linemen returns for the U of L game. Center Matt Smith (ankle) and tackle Billy Joe Murphy (knee) did not practice Tuesday.

Smith ran on the ankle. "The biggest thing for him, if he is healthy, is conditioning," Phillips said.

In trying to practice last week, Smith aggravated the ankle sprain, Phillips said. "We were expecting a big year out of him," the UK coach said before adding, "We still are expecting a big year."

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