You can’t teach mean. Harlan Miller plays cornerback the way a mama badger protects her young, a raging firecracker in cleats.
“It’s always been like that in the NFL,” the former Southeastern Louisiana star explained. “Once you’re on the field, everybody comes out there with the same mentality. Coming from a small school, you always have a chip on your shoulder to show them that you can play with the big-school (prospects).”
He’s spent the last three months playing angry. It’s part of the package the All-Southland Conference defensive back has been selling to curious pro scouts in recent weeks, take it or leave it.
And so far, so good: If big safety Miles Killebrew out of Southern Utah isn’t the first small-school defensive back plucked in the 2016 NFL Draft, then Miller darn well might be. NFLDraftScout.com projects the former Lions standout, who notched four interceptions as a senior and 11 picks over his last three seasons, as a likely fourth-round selection, with upside (and temperament) to burn.
“It just goes back to (how) it doesn’t matter where you come from,” the 6-foot cornerback said. “They (only care) if you can play once you step on the field.”
At the Senior Bowl during the last week of January, Miller’s dogged tenacity drew all kinds of raves. And more than a few bruises.
“I showed them I could play with the big-school (guys),” said Miller, who was part of the South squad’s 27-16 victory, “and I think I opened a lot of eyes.”
Alas, the only thing harder for a prospect than grabbing the spotlight is keeping your mitts on it. The ex-Southeastern cornerback raised some eyebrows — and not necessarily for the better — during the NFL Scouting Combine after just six bench reps of 225 pounds and a 40-yard-dash time in the mid-4.6 range.
“Once you see the numbers, you know what you have to work on,” Miller said. “You don’t necessarily have to have somebody telling you what you need to improve on.
“It was kind of disappointing for me at the combine. That’s why I worked hard after that to be in even better (shape).”
Annoyed by his numbers in Indianapolis, Miller went back to angry-badger mode and came out swinging. At Southeastern’s Pro Day last Thursday, he improved his 40 from 4.65 to 4.57 and his three-cone time from 7.44 to 7.1.
“I think I surprised (them), given the feedback and my 40 time that I improved from the combine and me being just very smooth throughout my drills,” Miller said. “You always want to improve your times and whatnot, but I think I did a very good job of that.”
Hailing from a little town (Tangipahoa, La., a village of about 750 and the home of former Southern Miss/NFL wideout Michael Jackson) and a little high school, Miler has always been big on putting in the hours, pounding the rock. He spent the winter working out around campus in Hammond, La., seven days a week, two to three hours per day. A battle plan toward bulking up — scouts have quibbled about his wiry arms and 182-pound frame — was hatched at Tony Villani’s XPE Sports Academy in Boca Raton, Fla.
“I tell (evaluators) I’m working mainly on my strength,” Miller said. “Getting built the right way.”
Historically, he’s been a quick study. Miller made the move from high-school quarterback to college cornerback during his freshman year at Southeastern, learning the position on the fly and from scratch.
“It was my first time playing corner,” he said of the switch. “I was shocked at the time … I had played a little safety, but that was about it.”
Nevertheless, he appeared in 11 contests as a true freshman and cracked the starting lineup as a sophomore, notching four picks and 10 pass breakups.
“That (quarterback experience) played a big role in it,” Harlan said. “Coming from a small school, I kind of had to play both ways, so I would do the (defensive) drills in practice, so it wasn’t really new to me. Nothing comes easy. You’ve got to put in the work to do that.”
The Arizona Cardinals have scheduled a visit for later this month; Miller has a date with the NFC champion Carolina Panthers in April. Only 20 players have ever been drafted out of Southeastern and Miller’s bidding to become just the second since 1985. The Atlanta Falcons tapped former teammate Robert Alford during the second round in 2013.
NFL draftniks love a good Cinderella story — but only if Cinderella can stick guys in the open field. Like the man said, nothing comes easy.
“If you’re mentally tough, everything else will take care of itself,” Miller said. “Most things, if you’re mentally tough, no matter the situation you’re in out there, you’re built for it.”
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