Football Preview 2017: Miller more comfortable entering second season in Rams’ backfield

Strasburg's Austin Miller takes a break at a recent practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – There were moments, particularly early last season, when Austin Miller looked like a football player trying to become acclimated to a new position in 2016.

Miller, who came up through Strasburg High School’s football program as a tight end, moved into the backfield as a junior last fall to fill the Rams’ vacant spot at running back, the featured role in a traditionally run-heavy offensive scheme.

As Miller took his first varsity handoffs in the season opener against Stonewall Jackson last year, when he often stutter-stepped before trying to squeeze through a hole along the offensive line, it was clear he would need some time to adjust.

Unlike his blocking assignments as a tight end, he said, or his pursuit of opposing ball carriers as a linebacker, playing running back brings with it an uncertainty in regard to when and where contact will come from. It was that thought that left Miller feeling a little uneasy.

“I was really hesitant in the beginning just because I was really nervous about getting hit, really. I don’t know what it was,” Miller, who played running back and fullback in youth football, said earlier this month. “I mean I’ve been hit hard all the time, but it just changed, I guess, being a running back from tight end.”

A year later, Miller has a full season as the Rams’ workhorse back under his belt – he carried the ball 218 times, the second-most among local players in 2016, for 948 yards and nine touchdowns last fall – and he needs no such introductory phase. That much was apparent to Strasburg head coach Mark Roller when the Rams hit the practice field for preseason camp on July 31.

“Watching him in the preseason right now, and seeing how he’s running, he has really progressed from preseason last year to this year. And he should have,” Roller said. “But the way he’s running right now is very impressive to us. He’s seeing things a little bit better, so I think that’s gonna be beneficial for him.”

Miller enters his third year as a two-way varsity starter with more confidence in his role on the offensive side of the ball. He’s got a better grasp of the Rams’ offensive playbook, and he’s studied the roles of each of his teammates so he can establish with more certainty where his running lanes will be.

“Last year half the time I was like a hole will be here, maybe over there, or I’ll have to bounce it,” Miller said. “But this year … I know pretty much every single position, like he has to block here, he has to block here, so my hole will be here and I’ll end having to be either one-on-one with the safety or the outside linebacker.”

Miller also has added 10 pounds to his 5-foot-11 frame since last season and entered preseason camp around 190 pounds, he said, adding that he’s got his sights set on reaching the 200-pound threshold.

That extra punch from the tailback spot could prove a valuable asset to a Strasburg offense breaking in a new quarterback, a new fullback and an unproven offensive line this season.

“I think a lot of guys are gonna turn to him for the leadership role, but for him to produce for us, to get that extra yard after first contact, those are the little things that he’s gonna have to do,” Roller said.

“Knowing he’s back there, he can’t do it all by himself, but certainly he’s big enough and strong enough now that he can get those extra yards on his own.”

Defensively, Miller – who has tallied 157 total tackles over the last two seasons – will likely reprise his role as a starting outside linebacker, although Roller said the senior could be moved around the field and see time at inside linebacker (where he played in 2015 and led the Rams with 95 tackles) and defensive end.

“He just has a nose to get (to the football),” Roller said. “There were times last year that he kind of overran plays and was a little too aggressive, and I think this year he’s gotta be a little bit more focused and under control to where he’s not overrunning those plays again.

“And I think the maturity level, you can see that he’s started to really mature in that aspect of the game,” he added. “We’re looking for big things on the defensive end and to have him moving all over the field.”

Miller said he would consider Strasburg’s 2017 season a success if the Rams simply put forth their full effort in every game. His personal goals are a bit loftier. He wants to top 100 total tackles this season, and he wants to rush for 1,500 yards.

“My goals are a lot higher this season than they were last year just because I’ve got a name, I’ve got shoes to step into from being behind Rakwon (White), Colton (Funk), Justin (Carr), all them,” Miller said, referring to some of Strasburg’s past running backs. “I’ve got big shoes to fill, for sure.”