Following his graduation from Texas A&M, Von Miller was excited about getting drafted and finding a new team to call home and to work out with. Unfortunately, although he did get one of the rare and valuable playbooks, there was little communication between teams and their drafted players due to the lockout. Miller’s a fortunate player - he has four coaches other than John Fox who have helped him since the beginning of 2011. One of them isn’t even with the Broncos.
Von had quite a friend on his side to help ease his transition to the pro game this offseason, a man by the name of Dat Nguyen. Nguyen had attended college at Texas A&M before spending seven years playing linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys until an injury ended his on-field career. He chose to go into coaching, and after three years working with the Cowboys, Nguyen headed back to Texas A&M in 2010 as the Aggies' inside linebackers coach. Miller was enthusiastic about describing what he and Nguyen worked on and how they did it:
He played in the 4-3, did it in the NFL. He knows what to expect, so I've been working with him. I want to have all of the terminology down, know my responsibilities, so when we get the word I'm ready to...do what I'm supposed to do in the Broncos' defense.
That should be good news to the Broncos, who drafted Miller at No. 2 overall and see him as their starting strongside linebacker and an elite pass rusher to be paired opposite Elvis Dumervil on the line. Miller has some level of experience at many aspects of his position, and Nguyen has, through his own experience, given him a leg up on some of the things for him to expect in the NFL.
"Miller is a strongside linebacker in title only,” Cecil Lammey told Doug Farrar. “John Fox has been moving Miller around the formation during camp, and so far in the preseason we've seen his best plays happen when he's got his hand in the dirt as a defensive end in a 5-2 formation. They usually put him on the open end with contain responsibilities, where he can speed rush to get to the quarterback. Miller might be the fastest pass rusher in the league, and he acts like a mind reader on the field because of the way he can anticipate the snap count. Miller has a quick first step, and an extra burst to get to the quarterback when the opponent is in his sights. Once in a while, the Broncos will use Miller in coverage on a tight end, but you can tell that he's not comfortable doing that yet.”
Miller has, for example, has struggled at times with the size, length and speed of TEs in the NFL, but has also had plays where he looked good in coverage (which he spent most of his sophomore year in college playing). He’s also been somewhat hit and miss with his run defense, but again, he has had good plays mixed with bad and he’s just learning a new system at a new level of the sport. Given that he’s a rookie not yet out of training camp, his skillset and upside are very substantial. If he can avoid injury, he’s going to be an elite player: his speed is already at that level. He needs to add more moves when rushing, but nearly every college star experiences that when they get to the NFL. He also gives you everything he’s got, looks for new ways to learn and develop, and he’s only going to get better.
It’s fair to say that it’s going to be up to linebackers coach Richard Smith to make sure that he’s getting the level of training in those areas where he’s weakest, and I have little doubt that Smith will manage to help him there. Smith is also planning to give D.J. Williams the most work and coaching that he’s had since he nearly took the Defensive ROY honors back in 2004. D.J. was moved to Sam the following year, later to Mike and has never seemed quite the same player since then. Smith believes that these are issues of technique and training, and is intent on pushing D.J. to get him back to the point that he had achieved as soon as his elbow will tolerate it. It’s something that will probably take some time, but I look forward to seeing what effect the additional training has.
Some fans don’t know that Smith has worked with the Broncos before, back in the 1990s: He worked with the linebackers and special teams for Denver from 1993-1996. After leaving Denver, Smith was with the 49ers for six years, during which he helped four linebackers reach the Pro Bowl: Ken Norton, Jr. (1997), Lee Woodall (1997), Winfred Tubbs (1998) and Julian Peterson (2002). Following a two-year stint in Detroit, Smith was the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2005, when his defense ranked second in the NFL in sacks with 49.
Next was a tour with the Houston Texans from 2006-2008, where Smith helped linebacker DeMeco Ryans make the Pro Bowl in 2007 and then defensive end Mario Williams do the same in 2008. Smith then moved back to coaching linebackers position for John Fox in Carolina from 2009-2010, where he helped Jon Beason make the Pro Bowl in 2009. He then followed Coach Fox to Denver, where he’s got a lot of young talent that he’s expected to help to develop: Joe Mays, Nate Irving, Wes Woodyard, Mike Mohamed and Von Miller are among them. Look for Miller to make his first Pro Bowl in the next few years, with more likely to follow. Miller has a lot of work to do on the aspects of his game besides his speed rush, which is amazing. However, with the coaching from among Dat Nguyen, Dennis Allen and Richard Smith, he’s in very good hands.
The final pieces to Miller’s coaching puzzle right now is defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely, a grizzled, gravel-voiced veteran coach who had been coaching the line in San Diego for 12 years before being let go in a defensive coaching turnover and (gratefully on both sides) being enticed into the Broncos organization as the DL coach. It’s no exaggeration to say that Nunnely is one of the most respected coaches at his position in the NFL. Since Miller is playing many of his snaps with his hand on the ground in what would normally be considered the LDE position more than the Sam, Nunnely’s advice and coaching will make a substantial difference in how Miller fares over the next couple of years.
Finally, Dennis Allen’s coaching as defensive coordinator will be a big part of how well Miller handles the enormous changes from college to the NFL. Ironically, after being a highly-recruited defensive back in high school, Allen himself chose to attend Texas A&M where he became a four-year letterman for the school as a safety, starting the last 21 games he played there and giving him a permanent connection to Miller. Allen was a member of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ defense there, a tradition of naming that was started by defensive back Chet Brooks back in the 1980s and 90s under head coach R.C. Slocum. The name has been adapted by teams around the league - Mike Mohamed of Cal was in a group of linebackers that were also called the ‘Wrecking Crew’. The university actually holds a trademark on the term, although I haven’t heard of them trying to legally enforce it so far.
Allen started out coaching as an assistant, generally for the defensive backs and was with the Aggies from 1996 to 1999 under Slocum, working in that capacity before moving up the road to Tulsa, where he was the secondary coach from 2000 to 2001. Allen had tried out for the NFL and was taken on by Buffalo as an undrafted rookie back in 1996, but decided to move into coaching when that didn't work out. In 2002 he was given his first shot at NFL coaching, being hired by the Atlanta Falcons. During his time there, he took the defensive secondary from 30th to 16th in the NFL. Allen also brought them up to 28 INTs, good for third in the league in 2002. In 2004, the Falcons racked up 48 sacks, leading the NFL and sent Patrick Kerney to the Pro Bowl. In 2005, they sent Rod Coleman to the Pro Bowl and notched 37 sacks.
Allen took a position with the Saints in 2006 coaching their defensive line. He found immediate success, and his defense achieved 290 tackles, 28.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries. A Pro Bowl selection also went to DE Will Smith. Allen was with the Saints through their Super Bowl XLIV Championship, until Denver offered him their DC position in January of this year. Owing in part to the shared knowledge of Sean Payton and Gregg Williams, Allen has the look of a coach just coming into his own. It shows in his intensity and focus in practice - everything else will have to be determined over the time and play of his defense. I hope that Denver is able to keep the young (he’s only 38) and talented coach around for at least a couple of years. Someone is going to come along and pick him off in the not too distant future if he continues to show the kind of consistent improvement, talent and hard work that’s served him so well up until now.
Von Miller has the potential to be one of the NFL’s most feared pass rushers over the next few years. But in addition to the advantages of the support and love of a close-knit family and the support of his teammates like Doom, Champ Bailey and Robert Ayers, Miller has had the good fortune to have excellent teachers surrounding him throughout his college career and continuing into his time in the NFL. He puts in the work, there’s no question. Miller likes to run sprints on his own at the end of practice. No one told him to - it’s just one more part of driving himself into becoming the best version of himself that he can. He keeps on doing a little more than everyone else, and with his level of talent he’s going to be a very versatile, very strong player.
Many of us still recall a particular teacher or teachers that we were fortunate enough to have during a certain part of our life, and all the benefits that we gained through that interaction. Having had the same kind of experiences at several times in my own life, I’m very happy for Miller. The combination of his own unceasingly hard work and the good fortune to find the right teachers at the right points in his life has done him a considerable service. Here’s to Miller - and here’s to the teachers who are helping him to bring out all of that considerable talent.