Blake Miller eludes a blocker during practice.
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - As the only senior on a defensive line that returns its top seven players, Blake Miller has seen enough college football to know how good this year's front three can be.
"I expect the D-line to put the defense on its back," he proclaimed. "We have a lot of experience and guys know the scheme. We have to take it upon ourselves to help this team win games."
Miller and Brandon Williams return as the starting ends, and they are joined by returning nose tackle Raysean Golden. The depth doesn't stop there. When you include Adam Brandt, Kitray Solomon, Calvin Belts and TJ Beelen, you have a whopping 131 games of collegiate experience combined along the defensive line.
A native of Greenwood, Ind., Miller weighed only 220 pounds coming out of Center Grove High School and was passed over by Purdue and Indiana. The Big Ten schools offered him preferred walk-on status, but he found a home at Southern Illinois where head coach Dale Lennon saw Miller's potential to fit into SIU's 3-4 scheme that emphasizes quickness.
"They saw the frame I had and thought I'd be able to put weight on pretty easily," said Miller, who has beefed up to 250 pounds in his fifth year with the program. "I've always been a defensive end and never had much interest in being a linebacker. I've always liked putting my hand in the ground."
"I wanted to go someplace where the team really wanted me," Miller explained. "Southern Illinois showed a lot of interest and I wanted to be part of a family that cared as much about me as I cared about them."
Ironically, the Salukis play at Purdue this season on Sept. 20, though Miller said he doesn't carry a grudge. Lots of other schools passed him by, also, likely because he missed his entire junior year of high school with a hip flexor injury.
"I don't have a chip on my shoulder about playing Purdue," he said. "It's more excitement than anything -- just being able to play a team from my home state. I have a lot of people from back home who will be at the game. I just want to play at a high level against a Big Ten team."
With 31 games under his belt at SIU and a half dozen sacks to his credit, Miller has been a steady contributor throughout his career. He's the perfect profile of a Coach Lennon-type defensive end -- mobile and attacking.
"At 250 pounds, I'm a breed between a linebacker and a lineman," he said. "We're always stunting and moving, and applying different pressures."
Playing football at SIU has been a life-changing experience for Miller.
"It's changed me dramatically," he said. "It's a job. You come out here and the coaches expect things from you. You can't take days off. Coach preaches every day to take steps forward and get better."
"We're with each other 24/7 it seems like, but even when we're not together for football, we're hanging out together," he said. "We've taken up some fun activities to clear our minds a little bit and get away from the game. We'll go fishing, swimming, play golf. We're always trying to find a good little pond somewhere that people don't fish very often."
Miller already has a business degree and is working on his MBA. After graduation, he plans to return to the Indianapolis area and pursue a job in business or finance.
1. Today marked the first practice in full pads and live blocking. Several offensive linemen stood out in one-on-one pass blocking drills against the defensive line. OT Ethan Wirth displayed an impressive hand punch, jolting defensive ends off their path. G Jamarcus Robinson manhandled defenders on a couple of occasions. C Matt Griffith did a nice job of neutralizing the bull rush.
2. It appears Robinson has pulled ahead in the competition to start at left guard. He took most of the first-team reps, while Kijana Evans mainly worked with the second team. With his long arms, Evans could also serve as a backup tackle. The offensive line appears set one through six, but at this time, it's unclear who is the seventh-best lineman.
3. Starting CB Courtney Richmond was back at practice today after spending much of yesterday's practice on the stationary bike. CB Keith Suggs is having a solid camp and is pushing for the starting job opposite Richmond.
4. QB Mark Iannotti continues to impress by demonstrating a diverse skill set. Today, he eluded speedy outside linebacker Lamonte Edwards on a bootleg and picked up a nice gain. He also stood tall in the pocket under heavy pressure, changed his arm angle, and completed 15-yard out route to WR LaSteven McKinney. Later, he recognized WR Tay Willis in single press coverage and hit him in stride on a fly route. Those are the kind of plays that can make a big difference in the outcome of games.
5. OLB Tyler Williamson showed an explosive first step off the edge and recorded a strip sack of QB Ryan West during 11-on-11. He has 8.5 sacks during his two seasons at SIU -- the most of any member of the defense. When paired with Edwards on the opposite side, the Salukis have two hard-charging pass rushers they can send after the QB.
6. TE Adam Fuehne watched practice from the sidelines. He's recovering from mononucleosis, and said he's feeling much better and is about a week away from rejoining the team.