Pat Miller is a talented cornerback with the type of coverage skills that could make him a very good defender in college. As a true cornerback in high school, he has long worked on the fundamentals of pass coverage, and thus his prospects for making the successful leap to a Division I starter are good. However, even with those abilities and experience on his side, he's still not ready to be an every down player for West Virginia at the moment. While WVU's struggles in pass defense had some calling for wholesale replacements on the back end of the Mountaineer defense, Miller's description of the learning process he is going through underscores just where he is in the battle for playing time.
Raw talent and ability to cover a receiver is just one part of the equation in making a cornerback ready for extended action. While one player might be a bit more physically talented or be better in a one-on-one situation, knowledge of the defense, and the scheme as a whole, is just as, if not more, important in playing. For example, it does no good to be a lockdown corner if you can't identify the person you are supposed to cover.
"You have to know what the safety is doing, what the linebacker is doing, where they are going and where they are dropping so you can do what you are supposed to do," Miller explained. "You have to know what other people are doing so that you can do your job. I have to work more on that and know what everyone is doing, so when I see what's coming I can react faster and play better. I have been getting better at reacting and not thinking, but some days it's still not there. I have to get where I just get it clicking every day, not just some days."
To be clear, pass coverage for a cornerback is not simply lining up on a wide receiver and following him all over the field. With multiple coverages and responsibilities, getting to the right spot and playing the assignment correctly is at least half the battle. A player that can't do that consistently is going to give up more yardage than he prevents, and Miller realizes the importance of understanding the defense as a whole.
"[The learning process] has been going good. I am learning more of the defense, and I am getting a little game time experience so I can be better next year," Miller said. "At first I thought I would get a little more [playing] time, but it has still worked out well. I am learning, and it's still good. I didn't expect too much, but the time I have gotten has been good.
"The coaches emphasized my role this year is to learn, get a little bit of time this year, and be ready for next year," he continued. "They have told me to expect to get a couple of series each game, and to be ready."
While some look at playing just a few snaps per contest being a waste of time, and that a redshirt might have been more beneficial, Miller disagrees. As a player that was used to being on the field all the time in high school (as just about every college player was), it has been something of an adjustment to get used to a spot duty role, but he has handled that transition well. Rather than worrying about playing time, he has used the on-field time to his advantage, and is working his hardest to maximize his practice time to its best benefit.
"Getting that taste of the field has been good," Miller noted. "Getting to travel, and dressing for all the games, and getting out there is a good experience."
In addition to the overall schemes, Miller is also learning and adapting to increased technique demands. He counts one of the fundamentals of alignment and corner play as his most difficult transitions.
"I have had to learn different techniques than I used in high school," he explained. "I used to play with open hips more, but here you have to keep your hips square. I am adjusting to that, and it's been the toughest thing so far. That, and adjusting to the defensive scheme. The 3-3-5 is just harder than the 3-4 we ran. There's so much more to it."
Some of that increased complexity is simply a function of moving up to college, where many more defensive options are present than the "cover that guy" assignments so prevalent in high school. With more players in the secondary, as Miller described, there is more to keep track of and more to learn. Mastering those complex maneuvers is all part of the growing process. And if that's not enough, there is the minutiae of technical skills to deal with as well.
"There are a lot of little mistakes that get pointed out that you have to fix," he noted. "Watching film, you might get something pointed out like getting a little tighter on the receiver. Overall you might be ok, but there are a lot of more advanced techniques for what you do on the receiver."