Like any good pass rusher, Arizona Wildcats senior DeAndre’ Miller is all about moving forward.
The injuries that have limited him the past three seasons? All he can do about them now is try to get bigger and stronger and, well, luckier. The latter hasn’t been on his side.
Miller has missed 16 games since appearing in all 13 as a freshman in 2013. He played in nine games last year, but at times, it was as if he weren’t there — a shadow of his usual self.
Miller suffered a high ankle sprain in the third game against Hawaii. He was never the same afterward.
Up to that point, Miller had four tackles for losses, including two sacks. From then on he had just one, three weeks later at Utah. Miller had 13 total tackles in the first three games. Over the next eight, he had more DNPs (three) than stops (two).
“I kept trying to play on it,” Miller said last week before Arizona took this week off for spring break. “I wasn’t doing anything but hurting the team.
“It was definitely frustrating. I didn’t have that push-off like I wanted to. Stuff happens. We move on.”
Getting Miller to talk about 2016 is like trying to sack the quarterback when you have a bum ankle: It’s an exercise in futility.
The Wildcats’ probable starter at “Stud” linebacker described his performance as “pretty disappointing.” He added: “Some unfortunate things happened to me. But God always has a plan. I’m moving on to next season. I’m not really worried about last season.”
A high ankle sprain is about the worst malady a pass rusher can suffer short of a season-ending injury. Miller relies on his initial burst to get the jump on larger offensive tackles and his closing speed to corral quarterbacks. High ankle sprains basically make that impossible.
“You have to do a lot of planting and cutting and bending the edge,” said UA defensive line coach Vince Amey, who worked with the Studs for most of the first nine spring practices. “To push off that ankle is really tough. That was hampering him throughout the season. As long as he stays healthy, I expect big things from him.”
That’s the theme when it comes to Miller, whose pass-rushing potential is as important as ever: If he can stay healthy, he can make a significant impact.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2015, Miller had 50 tackles, including eight for losses. Amey, a former seventh-round draft pick who played one season with the Oakland Raiders, says Miller has an “NFL body” and “NFL talent.”
“He has all the tools to play at the next level,” Amey said.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 236 pounds, Miller has bulked up to 245 in hopes of being better equipped to handle the rigors of the season. No one on the team has a more chiseled physique.
“He looks the part,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He’s a good football player when he’s healthy. He just hasn’t stayed healthy and can’t stay consistent because of that.
“He’s a hard-working guy. He loves football. He’s in great shape. I expect a big year out of DeAndre.”
Miller expects the same of himself, and Arizona desperately needs him to be at his best. Although he missed time and played hurt, Miller’s three sacks still tied for the team lead last year. The Wildcats had just 22 sacks compared to their opponents’ 28. They had 14 takeaways and a minus-7 turnover differential.
Pass-rush help is expected to arrive in August, when freshmen My-King Johnson and Jalen Harris begin their UA careers. Redshirt freshman Jalen Cochran has “special” skills, Amey said, but has been limited all spring because of an undisclosed injury. All three are inexperienced, so any projected production is just that — a projection.
Miller is determined to lead them, by words if necessary but mainly by deeds. He talked about spending extra time in the weight and film rooms and trying to “get some of the guys to do it with me.”
If he can avoid the Wildcats’ trainers and doctors along the way, all the better.
“The clock is ticking, but that’s not my mindset,” said Miller, one of 17 seniors on the roster. “My mindset is going out with the group of guys that I have now and trying to do the best we can to make U of A football history.”