Without fail, one of the most viewed YouTube highlight videos in every draft class contains the words “the hardest-hitting player in the draft.” This year, that honor could go to Florida Gators linebacker Ventrell Miller.
This past season, Miller recorded a 75.4 run-defense grade, 13 tackles for loss or no gain and a team-high 33 solo stops. If you pop on the film for some of those stops, you’ll see them come with a little extra power to them. Being physical is what helps Miller stand out, which is fitting because being physical is how he got into the sport in the first place.
The state of Florida breeds some of the best competition across the country when it comes to the game of football. Whether it’s youth levels, high school or college, if you can stand out in that state, you have a chance to really make it at the highest level.
Miller has been playing ball in the state of Florida for a long time — and not just including his six years with the Gators. Miller, from Lakeland, Florida, came up through the talented Kathleen Senior High School. Since he was 5 years old, he’s been strapping a helmet on and either dishing out punishment or taking it as a running back and linebacker.
“I like the contact,” Miller said with a smile in an exclusive interview with PFF. “That’s what it was for me.”
Though the future Gators backer would eventually become the county’s Defensive Player of the Year his senior season, he thought running back would be his future. That was until his high school coach said something that stood out to him — so much so that it changed who he wanted to be within the game.
“In high school, I always thought I was better at running back,” Miller said. “But when I was in summer camp going into high school my coaches would always tell me, ‘Linebackers are not ordinary.’ That always stuck with me.”
Miller wanted to walk the road less traveled, proving he was up for one of the toughest challenges in the sport: commanding the center of a defense. It changed how he saw the game, and his running back background gave him a head start on how he viewed the position.
“They call it the quarterback of the defense,” Miller said. “As a linebacker, you’re put in a spot to represent your whole team and get them set up front to back. I embrace all the things you have to do to be a linebacker.”
The linebacker path led him to Florida. He redshirted in his first season, and in his second he was a rotational contributor. But in his third season, he was a starter. He again started during his redshirt junior year and then opted to return to school for his redshirt senior year. Unfortunately, he tore his bicep just two games in. That allowed him to return for a sixth season of eligibility. In total, he’s played more than 1,600 snaps in his college career with three full years of starting experience to his name. Some might look at his experience and age as signs of a prospect on the older side. But Miller looks at it as a blessing — that his experience will allow him to hit the ground running in the NFL.
“I’ve had a whole bunch of reps in my college career,” Miller said. “Being able to use those to see what’s going to happen next, using all the situational football I’ve been in to my advantage. Something I tried to emphasize this year was creating turnovers, punching the ball out, things like that. Instead of just hitting people hard, I was trying to knock the ball out.”
Miller’s extended time on the team has also allowed him to grow as a leader. He was voted as a captain by his peers, an honor he truly takes to heart. He mentions Ray Lewis, someone who went to the same high school Miller did, as a player he’s admired — and not just for his hard-hitting, statement-making play style, but also his leadership qualities, in both actions and words.
The veteran Gators linebacker will admit he’s more soft-spoken off the field, but when the helmet and cleats come on, something he enjoys the most is the communication aspect of his position. His teammates trust him, and he knows that only comes from earning their respect.
With an eye on the pros, Miller knows that to continue to be a full-time linebacker at the next level, it’s not just about the strength of his tackles, even with some of the turnovers. He’ll need to continue to improve his play in coverage.
“You have to be versatile to be a linebacker,” Miller said. “You have to learn how to get the right depth and read the quarterback's eyes. Being able to recognize that as quickly as you can and get back to your drop. For me, I’m working on one-on-one coverage, whether it’s with a tight end or a running back. I like those things, but I'm working to get better at those.”
The game is changing. It’s lighter, it’s faster, it’s more spread out. But make no mistake, physicality is still non-negotiable. And Miller brings it.