Matt Milano didn’t want to be a linebacker.
The Buffalo Bills’ rookie was a safety in high school, and he was so resistant to the idea of a position change that he chose his college because of it.
Milano had scholarship offers from Arizona, Air Force, Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio) coming out of high school, but he chose Boston College because the Eagles were going to let him play in the secondary. After his freshman year, however, Eagles defensive coordinator Don Brown approached Milano about a position change. He wanted Milano to play the "SAM" linebacker spot, and this time, there was evidence to show that was a good idea. The players who held that job before Milano, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Josh Keyes, are both in the NFL.
“That spot on our defense was a vital position,” Milano recalled Thursday. “That’s what sold it.”
Even though he was resistant to the change at first, Milano now can’t see himself playing another position.
“I definitely feel comfortable now,” he said. “I haven't had a problem being in the box at all. Nowadays, the game's really changing to a passing league, so you've got to be able to defend the pass as well.”
That ability is what attracted the Bills to Milano in the first place.
“You look at his background, different positions that he played in college. Sometimes those don't always correlate to what NFL positions are, but really his background and playing in space, that showed his athleticism overall,” coach Sean McDermott said. “That's what piques your interest. That's what piqued our interest early on.”
The Bills clearly had a more favorable opinion of Milano than some draft experts. The league’s official website, for example, projected him as a sixth- or seventh-round draft pick, well after Buffalo took him in the fifth round.
“I didn't really have an idea in my mind of where I was going to go,” Milano said. “If it happened to be the fifth round, it happened to be the fifth round. If it happened to be undrafted, either way I was just going to come with the mindset going to camp that I'm just going to work every day and let the coaches know that I can play.”
Milano has done that in Buffalo, officially becoming a starter before the Week 14 game against Indianapolis. In his first game in that role, he led the defense with 11 tackles against the Colts.
“Matt is a guy that has consistently gained confidence in himself, in the scheme. I think his production and his play has exemplified that on the field since he’s gotten here,” veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “He’s a guy that’s humble, eager to learn and always taking advice, whether it’s from a veteran player like myself or the coaching staff. He’s been dialed in since Day One. Great to see him get his opportunity because he was doing a great job on special teams, and filling in as a rotational guy. Now, he’s the guy.”
With that comes a different set of challenges, Alexander said.
“People will start scheming for him because obviously, he’s making a lot of plays,” he said. “Offensive coordinators will be like, ‘Oh, this is the guy we have to look out for, put him on the big board at the beginning of the week.' I’m excited to see how he continues to handle that and grow through that process.”
Milano didn’t run particularly well at the NFL Scouting Combine — which might have benefited the Bills. His 40-yard dash time of 4.67 seconds wasn’t among the top 15 linebackers, but Milano feels at home in coverage.
“There are some linebackers that are stiffer than DBs,” he said. “So I feel like coming down from defensive back, I have a little bit of that swag, I guess you can call it, in the pass game. I just feel comfortable doing it.”
He’s also more than held his own against the run.
“Just a mindset, you know what I'm saying?” he said. “You just have to come downhill, play with your hands. Don't let the blockers get into you, and get off blocks. That's the name of the game. If you get stuck on blocks, you're going to get beat every time, because they're 320 pounds, and I'm 225 pounds.”
Milano will make his third start Sunday when the Bills host the Miami Dolphins in a must-win game. While he's happy to have earned a starting job based on merit (as opposed to injury), his primary focus is team oriented.
"It definitely feels good for the opportunity — to know the coaches think that way of me," he said. "I just want to make the playoffs as a team. Get Buffalo to the playoffs and go from there. That's been our goal all season. That's just the mindset going into these next few games."