A tight end with promise

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> The five tight ends on their roster combined to catch 15 passes last season, so Saturday, the Steelers drafted a tight end who caught 144 passes in college.

But of course the big question is: Can Heath Miller block?

"Yes," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "He's going to block. That's important for a tight end in our offense, but certainly there'll be some things he can do."

The Steelers feel fortunate they were able to draft Miller with the 30th pick of the draft yesterday. He was the best tight end of a weak crop, and tight end, as the aforementioned statistic illustrates, is the Steelers' weakest unit.

A 6-foot-5, 256-pounder from the University of Virginia, Miller slipped through the first round because of an injury that prevented him from working out after the season. He has a sports hernia, or athletic pubalgia, and struggled through his final season before finally bowing out in the second half of the MPC Computers Bowl.

Miller saw Dr. William Meyers, a noted surgeon in the field, and underwent surgery in January. He couldn't work out at the combine and missed his pro day workout. Other teams were scared off, but the Steelers passed him medically earlier this month. Then they waited more than five-and-a-half hours Saturday to draft him.

"We were in a situation where we had to wait it out," said director of operations Kevin Colbert. "Sometimes that is the best situation. It certainly worked for us last year."

Last year, the Steelers waited for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to fall into their laps. This year, they gave Roethlisberger a weapon.

Miller attended Honaker (Va.) High School, where, as a quarterback and free safety, he led the team to the state semifinals as a junior and the finals as a senior.

He was recruited by Virginia as a 235-pound quarterback, but after one camp was moved to tight end and learned the position while sitting out the season.

As a redshirt freshman, Miller started all 14 games and caught 33 passes for 327 yards (9.9 avg.) and 9 touchdowns. He broke out as a sophomore with 70 catches for 835 yards (11.9 avg.) and 6 touchdowns.

Virginia's Matt Schaub went to the NFL after the 2003 season, and opposing defenses began paying attention to Miller last year. He also struggled with the hernia, which became more painful as the season progressed. His five catches in the first half of the bowl loss to Fresno State brought his season total to 41 catches for 541 yards (13.2 avg.) and 5 touchdowns.

"The muscles in the low abdomen area were torn a little bit," said Miller. "The doctor went in, repaired those and my rehab's going great and I hope to be back in a few weeks."

The Steelers' minicamp is May 6-8 and Miller believes he'll participate.

"If there was any concern, we certainly would not have made this pick," said Colbert, who admitted the Steelers "had our eye on Heath throughout this whole process."

"They talk about us not throwing to the tight end," said coach Bill Cowher. "But we try to utilize what we have. When we had Eric Green here, we tried to utilize him. I am not saying he is Eric Green, but we think he is a pretty good football player who is not just a one-dimensional guy."

Green caught 63 passes in 1993, a Steelers' record for the position. He caught 46 passes in 1994 before leaving as a free agent. Mark Bruener was drafted in 1995 and caught 37 passes. The team's tight ends haven't combined to catch more than 37 passes since, but it's a number Miller could top as a rookie.

"This guy can catch. He has big, huge hands," Cowher said. "I just like the way he plays. When he blocks, he finishes blocks. He is a no-nonsense guy. He is a good fit for our football team, not just our offense. He is a tough guy. He had an injury that I don't know how many guys would have played through last year, but he did."

Miller isn't a tools guy. His listed 40 time is 4.87. His vertical jump is only 32 inches and he bench-pressed 225 pounds 17 times. He's been compared athletically to Jay Novacek and Frank Wycheck, but Miller, the Mackey Award winner, knows how to get open. And he has the "want-to," according to Whisenhunt, and that matters most at the line of scrimmage.

"Obviously he's a guy that studies and works at (blocking). You can see it on the tape," Whisenhunt said. "The biggest part of blocking, run blocking especially, is want-to. I think he has that. He has that desire to be a good blocker, to be a complete tight end. So that is certainly a big plus."

Miller's also smart. He scored a 39 out of a possible 50 on his Wonderlic test, which measures intelligence. He's two classes from graduating in May with a Sociology degree, but wants to stay in football after his playing days are over.

So will Whisenhunt begin scheming right away with his new tight end in mind?

"The system will take care of that," Whisenhunt said. "If he comes in and shows that in certain situations he can do some things, then you're going to try to design some plays for him. But when he comes in here to start off, he's going to run the offense we have. As he has success, then maybe we'll do some things that will take advantage of his strengths.

"Any time you have a guy that can block in the running game, and be effective in that area, it certainly helps you, especially in play-action, where you can tie that into it if he's effective as a receiver. And that's a big part of the attraction."

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