Brit Miller: Illinois' Versatile Linebacker

Coach Ron Zook and his defensive staff have a big chore next year replacing Consensus All-American J Leman at middle linebacker. The position requires leadership, knowledge, experience and athleticism, so finding the right guy can be difficult. One of the prime candidates is upcoming senior Brit Miller.

Brit played in the middle his freshman year, but he has toiled at strongside linebacker (SAM) the past two seasons. He is the sixth leading tackler on the team, collecting 57 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. He is ready to take over a leadership role if asked.

"I'll be ready to step up. It's tough to replace a J. Leman and Antonio Steele, but we have great talent in Martez Wilson, Sam Carson, Rodney Pittman, guys who have been in battle, so we're looking forward to the challenge. I think the linebackers have the most to prove next year. The D-line has most of the same guys who have produced. We'll be missing our safeties, but the corners with Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks are very talented as well."

Miller admits there will be a learning curve should he move to MIKE (middle linebacker).

"It's been so long since I've been in the middle. I know in the middle you get in the mix a lot more. I sometimes get mad when I have to get pulled off for the nickel and stuff like that, but when I step back and see I'm playing behind J Leman and Antonio Steele, it's fine. They're very talented guys, and whatever the coach decides is fine with me.

"Spring ball is when we find out who will do well for us. Whatever the situation might be, I'm going to be out there. I'm sure I'll be the nickel MIKE. There'll be a lot of competition within the linebackers, so I think our play will definitely be stepped up for spring ball and summer camp."

The SAM linebacker must be strong enough to take on blocks from large and athletic tight ends, and he must have good lateral quickness for pass coverage. Brit has learned to enjoy the position, although he still wants more playing time.

"I'd like to be an every down linebacker. Right now, I'm a first and second down guy. In my eyes, the only way we're successful is if we get to third down and long situations and I'm off the field. Anytime we're third and short, we didn't do the job. I've kind of gotten away from playing that third down.

"I've begun to understand the SAM as part of the scheme. You're not really coached in a lot of detail on what you're to do. You've got a lot of freedom in that position, so you have to use it wisely. And that wisdom only comes with experience. So that's why I'm anxious to see what they're going to do.

"No matter what, the right person will be in the right position. If I get to play the MIKE, I'll enjoy all the tackles and go after J Leman. We have a joke with J that we're always the ones taking on the blocks, you're just making the tackles. You don't even get beat up. I'm looking forward to that."

Brit Miller is refreshing to interview because he is intelligent, thoughtful and communicative. And he doesn't just repeat the typical cliches most athletes use to answer questions. Even mention of his year-long turf toe problem generated a lengthy explanation.

"It feels a lot better. I took all my reps today, so that's a good feeling to get back out there. Being on that bike with Coach Lou and running sprints, that stuff gets old in a hurry. Today was a good day because I was back out there with my boys.

"It's still tender, but that's the way it goes. It kind of got worse and worse over the season, so we're taking some precautions now. They gave me a little time off, and the toe is beginning to heal a little bit. During the season, it's easy to get up for the games. But when you don't practice for 2-3 weeks, you need the reps. We're now preparing for USC, and we need those mental reps."

Miller is looking forward to the challenge of facing USC in the Rose Bowl.

"We're looking forward to these guys. We prepare for everybody the same, but when we have teams like USC and this much time to prepare for them, we're getting really in depth. We know they will give us a lot of wrinkles, and we know it won't be the same when the bolts are really flying, but the more we can get these guys down in our minds, the more confidence we can build in Champaign to take to Pasadena, the better we will fare out there."

Illinois' 1984 Rose Bowl team may have left its best energy on the practice fields and had nothing left for the game. The key thing now is to stay calm and balanced and not get too aroused too quickly.

"Coach has talked to us a lot about this slow burn. It's hard not to get excited for these guys and this situation. But when it comes to the football part of it, we're building that slow burn. Practices are starting to get a little more intense, you can see people are starting to dislike each other a little bit more, but I think that's where we need to head.

"And when we get out to Pasadena, we'll take a couple of days to not kill each other out of sheer excitement. But I think we'll be ready for USC. It's going to be a great game. They've got some big players, and they've been in a lot of big games now. We've played quality opponents all year long, and this is going to be just like that. We're looking forward to it, but we've got enough veterans to keep it under control until we need that enthusiasm."

Brit Miller has one big bowl game and another full season with the Illini, and he plans to make the most of it. If he is asked to fill J Leman's shoes, he will bring great assets to the table. He may not be a Leman clone, but he might just come close.

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