By Joe Shearer, Photo Editor
Across the country, outside the limelight of the Aaron Rodgers’ and Chris Johnson’s of the NFL, there are hundreds of pro football players patiently waiting for their spot to climb up the ranks of their position.
Zach Miller, a former Maverick star quarterback, is one of those players.
Drafted in 2009 by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miller has been playing the tight end position behind Mercedes Lewis.
After a solid first season performance and a nagging foot injury that prevented him from improving his second season stats, the versatile athlete is anxious to get out and see if the third time will be a charm.
Days after the NFL lockout was lifted, The Gateway was able to catch up with the ex-Mav before training camp to discuss his new home, his thoughts on his alma mater’s storied football program being canned, and his experiences in the NFL.
Gateway: How are things going down in Florida?
Zach Miller: Good, good. Thanks, man.
GW: Thanks for having us. So, you’re more than 1,300 miles away from home. You’re from Wahoo, right? How often do you come home?
ZM: I’m from Weston, which is just outside of Wahoo. I come home two to three times a year.
GW: What is Jacksonville like compared to Omaha?
ZM: It’s not too different, really, besides the weather and the water. It has a little-big city feel to it. I mean, size wise, it’s one of the biggest counties in the continental United States, I think. But it’s very similar in speed…the same pace of life, basically.
GW: What do you do with your free time down there?
ZM: Most of the time I hang out with my family. I like to Jet Ski, you know, and hit the beach; and occasionally –when my quarterback (David Garrard) invites me out, I go ride out on the yacht that he has (laughing).
GW: Very nice. Well, at least you have the ocean and beaches to go with the crazy heat down there.
ZM: Oh, definitely. It’s very refreshing. We always take advantage of it. I live five minutes from the beach, so we love to pack up, shoot out there and hang out and relax there on weekends.
GW: Do you keep in contact with any players and staff from your old program at UNO?
ZM: Yes, I do! I think the guy I keep in contact the most would be Kenny Onatolu. He and I are very good friends; we always hang and work out together through the summer. I also keep in touch with Coach Behrns, Coach McMenamin and Coach Riley, all of those guys. It’s not a set group of people. I try to keep in contact with everyone I played with in the UNO football program.
GW: Obviously you know about UNO’s move to Division I. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
ZM: Ah, I was frustrated, angry, disappointed. You know, there were a number of feelings. They just take away the program like that overnight. It still runs through my mind. I just don’t understand why it happened. They had a plan that they were ready to execute without even involving anybody who mattered. All the people who made the decisions; they don’t know what UNO football meant to other people, and the family that we had, so… I just feel that they took something away from people that meant a lot to them.
GW: Speaking of UNO football. Do you feel that the instruction of Coach Behrns and the rest of the staff shape you into a player that could make it in the NFL?
ZM: Oh, man…there really are no words that I can put that into. He just helped me every day; and he gave me an opportunity, which is the biggest thing. You know, from the beginning of my college career he gave me opportunities to play football. And from then on it built into a greater relationship where now I can call him and talk about anything but football. You know, they made me a football player and they gave me chances to do things, but I think the important thing is the relationship we built to win it.
GW: Going through your college stats, they showed that you were definitely a versatile QB. You had a great balance of passing and rushing yards, and even a few receptions. Did your multifunctional role help you out when learning the tight end position?
ZM: Yeah, I mean, being a quarterback and just the way you study and learn offenses and learn plays and study defenses – It definitely gives you an advantage when making the transition to the tight end position. As I study an offense, I’m used to studying it as a whole and not just dialing in on one position. So, like I said, it’s an advantage for me because I can study all these different positions and be a versatile split out. I can be in the slot, I can be in the backfield and I can just do things all over the football field.
GW: And has your studying of defense helped you perform the defensive role of the tight end position?
ZM: I read all defenses. That’s one of the most important things a tight end has to do. You have to find your safeties, and backs that aren’t covered and stuff. And you have to do all that pre-snap and then on the run, so being an ex-QB definitely helped me recognize a lot of things.
GW: Did you know that you wouldn’t be playing QB when you got drafted?
ZM: I didn’t. You know, I tore a ligament in my thumb two days before my pro day, so… I had, I think, 22 teams come to my pro day, and about half of them were going to work me out as a QB, but I couldn’t throw. I had no choice but to tape up my thumb and run around. I could catch the ball, I just couldn’t throw it. So, I was kind of limited. But thankfully I got the opportunity to come play down here in Jacksonville and play tight end, and I’m trying to make the most of what I have.
GW: Were you nervous about the switch initially?
ZM: You know, there were some things that I was more worried about just because it was new. But the way I look at it is: I just have to go out there and play football. It’s the game I’ve been playing my whole life, and I’m just doing it from a different spot now. I’m just trying to utilize my athletic ability and take charge as a player.
GW: What were your post-college plans if you didn’t get drafted?
ZM: I probably would have gone into coaching at some point. I know that Coach Behrns said that I could always come back and help out there [at UNO] and help get a career started. I’d get my foot in the door there. But, that wouldn’t work any longer at UNO, I guess (laughing). But yeah, I did plenty of networking and I knew there would be someone who could help me out.
GW: In your first season playing in the NFL, you played in 14 games, caught 21 passes for 212 yards and received two touchdown passes. What did you take away from that experience?
ZM: Man, it was mostly a lot of learning on the go. The game is so much faster; it just operates on a higher level in the NFL. I just had to adapt and learn to play the game a little differently.
GW: Your second season, you had nearly identical stats, but you had a foot injury issue before the season. What was that like?
ZM: Yeah, I had a mid-left foot injury. It’s an injury where it can get serious, and then it can just nag you. It was something that I had to learn to play with. I have to be available, I have to stay healthy. I need to be able to stay on the football field to utilize my skills.
GW: How have you prepared for season three?
ZM: Well, it’s a little different now since we had no offseason. We got together over the summer to work on things and stay sharp and in tune. We’re just getting into camp and I’m trying to knock a little of the rust off. I have to fight through these first couple of days and try to get in a rhythm and get ready to play some games.
GW: When you participated in workouts during the lockout, did you practice with players from other teams or just your teammates?
ZM: Nope, just my teammates. David Garrard was orchestrating them all summer long.
GW: Speaking of Garrard, do you still brush up on your QB techniques with him and the other QB’s?
ZM: Absolutely, I do. Early in practice I’ll go join them for a little bit and try to keep things sharp.
GW: Do you have any advice for the small-time college athletes trying to make it to the professional level?
ZM: The whole thing is a game of believing and training and being able to execute what you’ve learned when it comes down to it, you know? Just keep healthy, keep fierce and keep believing. Do what you have to do.
GW: Well, thanks again for your time. Everyone here at The Gateway appreciates it.
ZM: Oh, yeah. Take care.