Inside linebacker Nick Miller may have been the best player in the Ivy League last year. He was a unanimous selection for first team All-Ivy. He was a finalist for the STATS FCS Buck Buchanan Award for FCS Defensive Player of the Year. His list of career accolades are nearly uncountable. Now, with his graduation, it’s someone else’s time. But who will step up?
The position of inside linebacker is known in the football world as the quarterback of the defense, as the they keep everyone organized, constantly shouting directions before the ball is snapped. Miller was a different breed of inside linebacker, as he largely led by example.
“[Miller] was a below-the-radar, unassuming young man. You never found a young man who worked so hard at everything he did,” coach Ray Priore said. “His ability to make a big play when you needed a big play to be made was probably his best skill.”
“Nick was one of the most quiet leaders I’ve ever seen. He was our weak side [linebacker]. He just hit the ball every time, and that’s what we’re trying to replace,” senior linebacker Zach Evans said. “I think my strong suit has been knowing the defense, understanding concepts, knowing where I fit.”
Replacing Miller’s production will mainly be two upperclassmen: Evans and junior Brian O’Neill.
O’Neill and Evans are two very specific types of leaders. O’Neill is loud, confident, and energetic, while Evans is more calculated.
“I bring an aspect of juice,” O’Neill said. “When I bring that onto the field, everyone’s going to rally together. I think my energy brings everybody up to a new level.”
Penn plays a system in which two inside linebackers are used. O’Neill, who started all 10 games last year, was the “Mike,” a term for the middle linebacker, who barks directions and keeps everyone on the same page.
O’Neill finished third on the team in tackles last year, second in tackles for loss, and third in sacks — all while only a sophomore. His energy and confidence suggest he’s up to the task, and he could be in line for a huge year.
Nick Miller’s sophomore year stats were 68 tackles, six tackles for loss, and four pass breakups. Last season, O'Neill finished with 57 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and two pass breakups, which makes it apparent that he is on track to become Penn’s next defensive star. There are going to be a lot more opportunities for him to make plays with Miller out, and the coaching staff knows he’s ready.
“Brian ... yeah. Brian brings the juice,” linebackers coach Jon Dupont said.
On the other hand, Evans played more sporadically last year. He was effective playing both defense and special teams. He finished sixth on the team in tackles, played all 10 games, and was generally a Swiss Army knife. The senior was also one of only two players on the roster to record at least one blocked kick and at least one sack.
This year, O’Neill and Evans are clearly ready for larger roles, but no one is expecting them to completely replace Nick Miller.
“Zach is very cerebral. He’s very intelligent, and understands the defense very well,” Dupont said. “Brian, Zach, and the rest of the linebackers don’t have to do anything outside of their ability. They just have to conform to the defense and do what their jobs require them to do every play.”
The first chance to see O’Neill and Evans will be this Saturday against Delaware. Time will tell if the duo can fill the void left by Miller, but two things are certain: Evans brings the composure, and O’Neill brings the juice.
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