Corey Miller knew his son Christian was cut out for football at an early age.
When he was just five years old, he began playing Pop Warner with kids who were two years older than him. One day during a tackling drill, his toughness was tested.
“He got whacked pretty hard,” his father recalled. “This 7-year-old ran right through him. He started crying and I said, ‘OK, that’s it.’ ”
But to his surprise, Christian collected himself and returned to the line.
“He wanted to go back in there,” Miller said. “So I knew then he had something special about him.”
Christian Miller is now 16 and ranked the nation’s No. 4 outside linebacker by Rivals, Scout and 247Sports. The Rivals100 member from Columbia (S.C.) Spring Valley committed to Florida over Alabama following his visit to UF’s Junior Day on Feb. 16.
Miller is proud of his son’s success to this point, especially because he has reached this level largely on his own.
“As I he got older, I could see the athleticism and I realized he had it in him,” Miller said. “But as I did with both of my kids, I wanted them to love the game and not feel like I forced the game on them.”
The elder Miller was a linebacker/defensive end at South Carolina from 1988-1990. He was drafted by the Super Bowl champion New York Giants in 1991 and spent eight years with the team. He was a full-time starter by his third season in the league and had the opportunity to play alongside the legendary Lawrence Taylor.
“He’s the best linebacker to ever play the game, in my opinion,” said Miller, who retired in 1999 after one year with the Minnesota Vikings.
But as Miller intended, his NFL career never had much of an influence on his son’s interest in football.
“I have the natural genes for it, I guess,” the younger Miller said. “But my dad didn’t play too big of a part for me. It’s just kind of something that I enjoy doing myself.
“I’m honestly an independent person and my parents are just always there to support me. That’s what I like about my family. They go with I want to do. They don’t try to force anything on me.”
Although Miller has shown signs of football potential since his childhood, the enjoyment he feels with the sport didn’t develop until recently.
He almost quite playing after middle school. The summer going into his ninth grade year, Miller didn’t want to go through offseason conditioning and stopped going to workouts. After reconsidering, he decided to join the team late.
But the day before he started high school, Miller broke his elbow.
“I missed that whole freshman year and then I came back in 10th grade ready to go,” Miller said. “I moved up to varsity right away, so I never played in a JV game.”
But it wasn’t until this time last year that things became serious for Miller. After going through spring football and being named one of top underclassmen at the Charlotte Nike Football Training Camp, his recruitment took off.
“I was going against older guys and I did really well,” Miller said. “That’s when I realized that I could really do something with this because coaches starting coming after me, and they know best.”
One of the first was Brad Lawing, who coached Miller’s father at South Carolina and was still with the Gamecocks at the time. He offered Miller as a defensive end, which caught the lifelong linebacker off guard.
“Christian was under 200 pounds at the time,” his father said. “But I feel like one of the most important things a coach has to do is be able to project and see that kid 50 pounds heavier. And that’s what he saw in Christian.”
Miller was initially turned off by the idea, but that changed this past year.
He played defensive end for the first time during his junior season (highlights HERE). Miller was only 190 pounds and had zero training at the position, but he finished with a school-record 14 sacks, 121 tackles (21 TFL), four forced fumbles and three recoveries.
“I grew up wanting to be a linebacker because that’s what I always played, but I’ve grown into a pass rusher,” Miller said. “I’ve always naturally had it, but I’ve come to realize that’s what I am. So I actually like that better now and I have the athleticism to be a hybrid linebacker.”
After accepting the change in his skill-set, Miller started searching for a college coach who could develop his pass-rushing skills better than anyone else.
He found him in Gainesville.
“South Carolina was never a player for Christian once coach Lawing left,” Miller’s father said. “When he went to Florida, we knew we’d hear from him again pretty soon. And it didn’t take long.
“Coach (Will) Muschamp loved his tape and he really wanted him. Christian watched a ton of film on Florida and Alabama and researched both schools, but at the end of the day it was Brad Lawing and Will Muschamp. Will is a great defensive coach and Brad was the X-factor. It was just a slam-dunk fit for Christian.”
Miller is looking forward to working with someone who not only coached his father, but several talented players in his 24-year career.
“We have a great relationship and my dad feels very comfortable with him,” Miller said. “He has the experience and he definitely knows what he’s doing with pass rushing. I have trust in him that he can get me to my highest level and have me playing at my full ability.
“Pass rushing is natural for me, but I’ve never done one drill for it at my school and I don’t really get a chance to work on it. This past season was just raw ability. So I can only imagine what’s it’s going to be like once I get to college and actually have someone like coach Lawing teaching me.”
Miller’s father first met Lawing when he was 19 years old, and he hasn’t come across a better college coach since.
“I think he’s the best defensive line coach in the country, no doubt about it,” Miller said. “When you look at his pedigree and the guys he has coached, he’s a great developer of talent. He’s very old school. He’s not a new age coach. He’s going to yell. He’s going to scream. He’s going to push you. But at the same time, you know he cares for you and he wants to see you perform at your best.”
Christian Miller is up for the challenge. He’s currently 215 pounds and hopes to be over 220 for his senior season. His primary position at UF will be strongside linebacker, but he’s going to line up at defensive end in dime or nickel packages and could grow into the Buck position.
With his recruiting process over and his academics in order (3.9 GPA), Miller is focused on taking his football potential through the roof.
“You’re not going to find somebody 6-foot-4 who has a 6-foot-10 wingspan and can move like a wide receiver,” he said. “I’m not trying to sound cocky, but that’s what everyone tells me. Nick Saban and Will Muschamp both said I’m one of the best pass rushers in the nation with my height, my length and my speed. But I feel like you can always improve and I don’t believe I have a ceiling. The sky is the limit.”