Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, DeAndre Miller had two choices: Play sports or get into trouble.
The Arizona linebacker went with the former.
“There isn’t much else to do in Anchorage,” he said, smiling.
So Miller began terrorizing offenses when he was 7 at the insistence of his father, Don. And believe it or not, football is the same in Anchorage as it is in Arizona, except “you have to put on a lot more clothes under your uniform,” Miller said. Miller’s family eventually moved to Buckeye, as hot as Alaska is cold.
“There’s a little bit more to do here,” he said.
Miller is catching on. Miller, 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds, has put together a solid spring and figures to be a factor in the fall. Miller and the Wildcats will hold their annual spring game Saturday.
At Buckeye High School, Miller did more — but sports were still a major part of his life. He thrived on the football field, being named to the coaches all-state team his junior and senior seasons. He qualified for the state track and field meet in the shot put and competed in the discus and triple jump.
Oh, and he’s wicked smart. An honor roll student for all four years, Miller graduated in the top 15 percent of his class and is now a pre-business major at the UA.
Miller morphed into one of the state’s better linebackers at Buckeye and was rated as a three-star prospect by the Scout.com recruiting service. A member of Rich Rodriguez’s second recruiting class, Miller chose Arizona over offers from Arizona State, Boise State, Minnesota and others.
Once on campus, Miller wasn’t afforded the luxury of redshirting his freshman season. He played in all 13 games last season — almost exclusively on special teams — and made three tackles.
But now with Jake Fischer and Marquis Flowers gone, Miller has emerged this spring as a serious candidate for a starting spot at one of the two outside linebacker spots.
“There are spots open. We just have to go out there and battle it out; it’s like ‘Mortal Combat,’ ” Miller said. “I have love for my brothers on this team, but when it comes down to it, we’re all trying to go out there and battle for these positions. Hopefully we can get enough guys that we can all play and can rotate.”
Miller spent January and February cleaning up some poor fundamentals — pass drop, blitzing technique and footwork — that he was able to get away with at Buckeye but not in the Pac-12.
With 15 practices down and just the spring game left, Miller thinks he did enough to at least get in the picture.
And he wasn’t the only freshman to do that.
Jake Matthews, an Ironwood Ridge High School product, has also improved his stock this spring. Even though he’s not even on scholarship yet, Matthews also has the size (6-3, 214) and speed that intrigue UA coaches.
“They’ve both been getting a lot of reps with the 1s and 2s,” Rodriguez said. “They’re both tall, athletic guys that have a little bit of an edge about them. That freshman linebacker class is pretty good, but those are two guys that are playing on the outside that are going to be really good players for us.
“They’ll be competing for (a starting spot) and be playing a lot of football, not just at linebacker, but they’ll be on most special teams, too.”
Matthews is hoping to follow safety Jared Tevis’ path — a local star who walks on to the UA, improves the first couple of years, gets put on scholarship and eventually becomes a starter.
It’s a goal he set for himself before his career began.
“I wanted to model myself after him and what he’s done,” Matthews said. “I’m still working at it.”
Rodriguez said he’s taking the right steps at earning that scholarship.
“He’s right on track,” Rodriguez said. “He’s definitely on track to do that. We’ll see how it carries out through summer camp and into the fall.”