“Defense wins championships” might just be the oldest, most overused cliche in all of football.
But for Penn, that tired maxim could become a reality in the 2018 season, and if that’s to happen, the Quakers will have Nick Miller to thank.
Miller, a senior linebacker from New Market, Md., has been dominating the Ivy League for years.
Following a freshman season in which he appeared in all 10 games for the Red and Blue, Miller blossomed into a star as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Ivy recognition while recording 68 tackles, good for second on the Ivy League championship winning team.
As a junior, Miller proved himself to be a bona fide superstar, upping his tackle total to 104, the most by a Penn player since 1997. Additionally, Miller demonstrated a knack for getting his hands on the football, tying for the FCS lead with four fumble recoveries on the year.
His exploits were rewarded handsomely with a boatload of awards and recognition. Miller was named both first-team All-Ivy and first-team All-ECAC. For the week of Sept. 25, 2017 he was named Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week, and, at year’s end, he was announced as a finalist for the Bushnell Cup as Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.
This season, as a preseason All-American, Miller is ready for even more, but Miller’s “more” isn’t honors and personal achievements. Miller’s “more” is one thing and one thing only — a championship.
According to Miller, last season, despite all of his awards and statistical dominance, can only be branded as a disappointment.
“The fact that we didn’t win a title last year sucks,” Miller said. “It just means that we all have to be better this year. We all have to work even harder. All of the other stuff, the awards and that stuff, is thrown out the window. It’s all about wins and losses.”
As a senior captain, Miller’s job can no longer be examined only through tackles and interceptions. Now, his leadership is just as important as his statistics on the field, and by all accounts, Miller takes his role as a leader very seriously.
“He’s definitely one of our leaders on defense, and it’s a lot of fun to play with him,” junior outside linebacker Connor Jangro said. “He leads by actions, only really talking when he sees fit. He has a ton of respect in the locker room through how hard he works and through what he does on the field.”
Through talking with Miller’s coaches and teammates, that “hard-hat” mentality appears to be one of the star linebacker’s defining characteristics.
“He’s one of the hardest workers you will ever find,” senior nose tackle Cooper Gardner said. “He’s one of those guys: He’s not about talking about it, he’s about being about it. He puts his nose down every day, works his butt off, and simply gets the job done every time.”
Miller attributes his hard work-based leadership abilities to his high school years when he learned that, if you want something, it’s always there for the taking. You just need to give it your all and keep the larger goal in mind.
“We lost a lot of great leadership with the seniors who graduated,” Miller said. “There was definitely a role to step into there. I just try to make sure that everybody’s working hard and doing what we have to do to get another ring.”
But don’t let the emphasis on Miller’s leadership and work ethic distract you from the fact that he’s one of the most talented football players in the FCS. In fact, associate head coach and defensive coordinator Bob Benson’s eyes visibly lit up when talking about Miller’s abilities on the field.
“His growth here has just been a rapid rise,” Benson said. “He has great instincts. He’s a playmaker who runs to the ball, and what’s really great for me is that you only have to tell him things once. He’s so instinctive. It’s really pretty remarkable.”
But, as it does for all student athletes, life for Miler extends well beyond the football field. While his on-field goal is clearly to win the third championship in his college career, off the field, Miller has a few different aspirations.
The first is pretty simple.
“I’m looking to enjoy life,” Miller said. “This is my last year of college. I want to be with my team, my friends, to build that camaraderie and chemistry in my last year.”
The second goal ... well that’s not something everybody could accomplish.
Miller, in between lifts, practices, and general schoolwork, occupies his precious remaining hours by working with a few different neuroscience labs on campus, as his passion for the subject rivals or even exceeds his passion for football.
“I really want to get into neuroscience as deep as I can,” Miller said. “That’s definitely where my heart lies.”
Perhaps in the future, Miller will go by “doctor.” But for now, his proper title, at least according to coach Benson, is “the best player in the Ivy League.”