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The straight and narrow: Understanding of offense puts rookie John Miller in command

This is the drill that scares kids away. One offensive lineman blocks one defensive lineman with a running back carrying the ball behind.

Bruises are guaranteed.

So in this group of 9- and 10-year-olds, up stepped John Miller. All 7 years old, 70 pounds of him. Miller wanted a piece of the hardest-hitting kid on this Pop Warner team in Miami, Fla., the one who terrified everybody else.

A whistle was blown and Miller shed his blocker with ease, meeting this running back head-on. His father, the team’s coach, remembers what happened next vividly.

“He almost knocked the kid out,” said Johnnie Green, Miller’s dad. “He hit the kid so hard, the kid was on the ground for about a minute.”

The crowd of kids screeched in half-disbelief, half-horror.

Right here is precisely where so much talent in this pocket of Florida can begin to disappear. A world of drugs and violence grips so much of Miami’s youth, smothering dreams daily. That kid starring in Pop Warner is eventually seduced to do wrong. Dad knew this. Johnnie Green lived this. So he never allowed his son – and future Buffalo Bills third-round pick John Miller – the temptation.

You’ve certainly heard about this 6-foot-2, 303-pound rookie stunning Bills coaches with his intellect this past spring. Miller picked up offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s complex blocking scheme so quickly, so seamlessly that he lined up with the starters in organized team activities. Miller was even telling some veterans what to do on plays.

So where does this all come from? At home. With Dad.

“He’s my rock, my best friend, I go to him for everything,” Miller said. “Having that father, that role model is why I’m at where I am today.”

Asked if there was ever a moment he could’ve slipped into the street, Miller doesn’t hesitate. Never. Not once. Rather, he witnessed the tail end of Dad’s darkest days in the streets – the drug dealing, the violence, the crime – and life lessons stuck forever. His parents were separated and he spent time with both as a kid, but Dad’s journey resonated.

“I saw my Dad go through so much,” Miller said. “I learned so much from him. He’s been through so much in his life, so I learned a lot from him — what to do, what not to do.

“I’ve just seen him go through a lot of things that I didn’t want to go through myself.”

A close call

By the time Dad regained his senses at the hospital he was surrounded by family. His two sons. His mother. His sister. Everyone stared back at him with the same pale sadness. If the bullet struck an inch here, an inch there, Green could’ve died.

Earlier that day – Nov. 13, 1999 as he recalls – Green was with one of his younger friends in the projects. Details are hazy. But as Green remembers, he was trying to keep his friend on “the right path” and some drug dealers on the street weren’t thrilled with the idea.

So when a fight broke out on the corner, Green joined in. He always had his friend’s back.

Amid the mob of fists, someone else crept through the backside of the alley with a gun and fired off a round of bullets. One caught Green in the leg and he landed in the hospital.

“It could have busted a main artery, a vein and I could have been dead,” said Green, pausing, “just on foolishness.”

And at that point, Green could’ve been in the NFL instead.

At Northwestern High School, one of the top schools in Dade County, Green once wreaked havoc at defensive end. He possessed athleticism, a mean streak, strength. But as Green says himself, he “put it to waste” by drifting into the wrong crowds.

Says Green, “I had a shot to be great.”

Was there violence? Drug dealing? “Everything,” Green admits. In Liberty City, there were dealers on every corner and regular drive-by shootings. It was sort of like the television show “The Wire,” he acknowledged, only with more dealers. There were hook-ups on every block, every alley.

Asked what his job was in the dealing, Green declined to say.

He does remember seeing his mother praying for his safety each night. And he does remember seeing many of his own friends shot and killed.

“Quite a few,” Green said. “And some of them went to prison and did time. When you’re young and you’re exposed to so much different stuff, it’s kind of hard not to get influenced with what’s going on. And back in the day, it was so easy to get into.”

No, Green didn’t languish behind bars himself but getting shot in the leg was a wake-up call.

Here his family stood, in tears, hoping he’d change his ways. Green decided he couldn’t let his son – one year away from that Pop Warner debut – waste away his potential, too. The doctor told him he’d be on crutches for six weeks; Green was back in two.

He moved his family to a different part of town and became a chef. For 15 years at “Classic Deli” in nearby Cooper City, Green cooked everything from Chicken Parmesan to strip steak to omelets. He grew to cherish the adrenaline rush of juggling 10 orders at once. From there, he got into real estate, flipping houses. Even today, he cleans out foreclosed homes.

Looking back, Green realizes the key was cutting off his entire group of friends. Not one dealer, not two. Everyone. That’s the only cure.

One split decision can end your life. This was the daily message to Miller.

“From what I saw in that lifestyle,” Green said, “it was nothing but you going to prison or you going to die. I didn’t want my sons affiliated with that. …God kept his hand over me, I guess, so I could be the voice, so I could lead and guide my son in the right direction.”

Acing the real test

So, no, Miller never had a close call of his own. Instead, those collisions from Pop Warner spilled into JV… to varsity… to four years at Louisville... to Buffalo.

One reason Miller slipped to the 81st overall pick might’ve been teams’ trepidation over his ability to pick up a NFL offense. He scored a 7, then a 14 on the Wonderlic intelligence test. Yet the Bills were convinced Miller was a different kind of smart. Coach Rex Ryan brought Miller in for a pre-draft visit and the guard proceeded to own the whiteboard.

Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer would draw up outside and inside zone schemes, tell Miller all of his responsibilities on that play and then erase the board. Time would pass. They’d discuss something else. And then Kromer asked Miller to draw up that exact play himself.

His recall shocked. Wonderlic be damned.

“They can measure you by a standardized test,” Miller said, “but they can’t measure your football intelligence. It’s totally different going from X’s and O’s to whatever they’re testing.”

So the Bills bought in. Miller credits his father, first, for the reason he has this opportunity.

He saw his dad’s renaissance firsthand.

“Perseverance,” Miller said. “The little things that he showed through his leadership and him becoming a better person. He always told me – ‘Life is what you make of it.’ And from there, I took that belief. He always said, ‘Whatever you do, you can’t be one foot in. You’ve got to be two feet in.’ ”

Over the phone, Green repeats three times that everyone must watch Miller’s vicious, wincing high school highlights on YouTube. When Miller turned 13 years old, he got him into weight-lifting. Their relationship grew stronger, closer with each year after the gun shot.

In time, Green has been able to revive his own squandered dream through Miller. He sees himself in his son. Strong. Nasty. Aggressive. A mauler. Dad lists off the traits, one by one.

“Everything I did – whether it was a basketball or horseshoe game – I always played with that aggressive nature,” Green said. “A lot of people say, ‘That boy is just like you.’ And if you ever meet me, we’re like twins. He’s built just like me. Looks like me. Walks like me.

“Pro Bowls. A couple Super Bowl rings. Anything can happen.”

It’s not just Dad. Louisville offensive line coach Chris Klenakis agrees. He has sent 24 offensive linemen to the NFL over the years coaching and Miller’s football IQ ranks right at the top of that list.

Each day, Miller took meticulous notes and referenced them constantly. He showed up to watch extra film in the morning and was one of the last players to leave at night.

“He is a true professional,” Klenakis said, “a student of the game.”

Miller was a weight-room star, sure. But Klenakis is quick to cite Miller’s “functional” strength on the field. Also, guards and tackles flipped from side to side constantly in Louisville’s offense, so Miller is used to being in a right- and left-handed stance – one reason he picked up Roman’s playbook immediately.

Soon, the task gets much tougher: block guys like Ndamukong Suh.

High expectations

It’s one thing to have a great memory. It’s quite another to fill what’s been a black hole in this Buffalo offense the last two seasons.

The Bills are asking a 21-year-old with zero NFL snaps to start. Miller gushes over Buffalo’s firepower on offense, reeling off nearly every skill-position player on the roster.

“We could have an outstanding offense,” Miller says.

Yet he’s the one that must keep it humming along. A gauntlet of defensive tackles await.

In addition to that twice-a-year joust with Suh, he’ll face a loaded New York Jets defensive line, Geno Atkins (Cincinnati), Vince Wilfork (Houston), Dontari Poe (Kansas City) and Terrance Knighton (Washington). He hasn’t visualized those match-ups yet, banking on the one-on-one battles in practice with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams hardening him by September.

For all the hours spent talking about Buffalo’s dreadful quarterback play, the performance at guard has been equally abysmal.

Maybe Miller changes that.

From the zone read to two backs to power, he says Roman loves to mix it up. There’s an equal amount of man-to-man and zone blocking in this offense. On a scale of 1 to 10, mentally, Miller says he’s at a “7½” with the playbook because “you can never get too content.”

It all begins July 31 at St. John Fisher College.

Dad plans on making the trip to training camp from Miami. No way is Green missing Day One in pads.

He’s the No. 1 reason Miller has reached that point.

And, hey, maybe Dad gets to see Miller flatten someone again.

“He’s going to be ready,” Green said. “He’s going to make a lot of noise, man. Write it down in your notes. Hang it on your wall. Put it in your wallet.

“He’s going to make somebody pay on a daily basis.”

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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