All eyes on Miller, TEs

LATROBE – There are the legends of the 1970s, but then there is the godfather of Steelers football. His name is Bill Dudley, and the 85-year-old can't wait to watch his old ball club this season.

There's one particular player who has Dudley's attention.

"I've watched Heath Miller play several years at the university and I think he's a helluva football player," Dudley said from his home in Lynchburg, Virginia. "Good blocker. Good receiver. He's got good height and size. Makes a good target. He has great hands."

"Bullet" Bill picked up his nickname after growing up in Bluefield, Virginia. It's a small mining town in the Appalachian foothills. Miller grew up some 40 miles west of Bluefield in Swords Creek. He followed Dudley's path to the University of Virginia and then to the Steelers. In fact, Miller is the first Cavalier the Steelers have drafted in the first round since Dudley, who may have saved the franchise with his stellar play in the 1940s.

"I follow the Steelers," Dudley said. "Of course, I think your quarterback had an excellent year and seems all primed this year to do a good job. I didn't follow the tight end last year too much but I do think Miller's a helluva football player personally."

So far, Miller is showing that he is, if nothing else, a willing and tough blocker. While the Steelers are throwing to the tight ends with greater frequency this camp, Miller worries more about his play at the line of scrimmage.

"We have a number of weapons on offense and it all starts with the running game," said the 6-foot-5 rookie. "It's what we have to establish first and then we'll just play off of that."

To that end, Miller drew cheers from the crowd at Wednesday afternoon's practice for his blocking in one-on-one drills. He's also grasping the playbook after working through two previous mini-camps.

"This is my third time through," he said, "so I'm feeling a little more comfortable this time around."

Jerame Tuman, though, is still the starter as he enters his seventh season. He's added eight pounds of muscle and shaved his head. If nothing else, Tuman is a more menacing figure off the field. Was he inspired by the drafting of Miller?

"I'd be lying if I said that was what did it," Tuman said. "I don't think that because they drafted him I did anything differently."

Tuman said that, if anything, playing the final year of his contract has been a motivating factor. "That always means something," he said.

Tuman was the target of the first play of training camp. He dove to catch a short pass from Ben Roethlisberger, but Tuman doesn't necessarily expect to improve on his nine catches from last season. He expects more of the same in terms of the position's overall production.

"Here's the way it goes," he said. "They're not focused on trying to get the ball to the tight ends. Early in camp you see a lot more of it because of the progression of our plays that go in and you'll see a lot more passes going to the tight end. As we get further into camp and we get our whole playbook in, you'll see it spread around probably a little more back to normal."

The Steelers have been throwing an abnormal amount of passes to their tight ends early in camp. Steelers tight ends caught 22 passes last season. This year they catch that many in a morning practice.

"Right, (Matt) Kranchick caught one; Tuman caught one; Heath caught one," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said after Wednesday morning's workout. And he was only talking about the final segment of practice, the team scrimmage.

"But they're not game-planning us on defense," he added. "So this is the way it's starting out. Our quarterbacks are making the reads as they come open."

Whisenhunt can't deny the Steelers have invested heavily at the position. They drafted Miller in the first round this year, and last year took 6-foot-7 Matt Kranchick in the sixth round. And last year's late-season addition, Walter Rasby, is a blocking star in one-on-one drills. Marco Battaglia, a free-agent acquisition this year, ended Wednesday's practice with a catch and long run.

Of course, expectations for increased production from the tight ends has become the norm. But since Mark Bruener's rookie year in 1995, Steelers tight ends have caught more than 24 catches only once: In 1999, they caught 32 passes.

Miller, who caught an ACC record 144 passes during his career at Virginia, could top that mark by himself this year.

"He's doing great," said Tuman. "He's a very intelligent kid and he's a real good guy. And he's a good athlete. He'll definitely help us out."


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