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The Changeover

Posted Jan 20, 2012

Georgia native and two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year Bruce Miller has found a home in San Francisco of all places, as a fullback, no less.

Jim Harbaugh’s face lit up like a Christmas tree when Bruce Miller’s name was first brought up to him at the conclusion of the 2011 NFL Draft, his first as a head coach in the league. Miller, a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, was taken by Harbaugh in the seventh round to play fullback in the San Francisco 49ers offense. The former Stanford coach, who converted many players in the Cardinal program to play positions they originally weren’t recruited to play, appeared to be consumed with the thought of coaching Miller already.

“I got on the phone with Bruce,” said a wide-eyed Harbaugh at the conclusion of the draft, “and made sure when we are on the clock that we were looking for a guy that’s willing to be a fullback and make that conversion. He said, ‘Coach, I’m a football player. Whatever you ask me to do, I’m going to do.’ So he was very excited about it. He may also be a pass-rusher, too. So, we’re not closing the door on any options with that youngster. I think he is a football player.”

The 49ers found more than a football player, they found a great person.

Talk to anyone who’s ever coached Miller, they’ll tell you the 6-foot-2, 248-pounder has always been a delight to be around. Even when he wasn’t his current stature, Miller was someone players and coaches enoyed spending time with.

“He was the type of kid no matter what he did, you couldn’t be mad at,” said Miller’s former high school coach Mike O’Brien, who came into contact with Miller when he became the head football coach at Woodstock (Ga.) High School.

O’Brien won three national championships and seven Georgia state titles at nearby Valdosta High as part of his 41 years of coaching that includes his time with Miller.

O’Brien, who retired two years ago and exchanges weekly phone calls and texts with his NFL pupil, remembers Miller from the first time they interacted. Back then, the new coach dragged Miller into the weight room by his earlobe. Miller wouldn’t need much pushing following O’Brien’s guidance.

“He was probably the biggest football influence on me,” said Miller, who’s developed into a Pro Bowl alternate at fullback in his first season with the 49ers. “I always loved playing football, but early on in my high school career, it wasn’t going the way it would end up going. Coach O’Brien was a motivator and he got me going in the weight room. He made believe this could be done and I could continue to play and really developed those next three years under him.”

With O’Brien’s arrival, Miller became part of the building blocks of a Woodstock team that snapped a 26-game losing streak. With constant effort in the weight room, Miller also grew to be a tenacious defensive player for O’ Brien and would become one of his only two-way players as a senior.

Miller’s tenacity on the field caught the attention of University of Central Florida head coach George O’Leary, too, who offered him a scholarship to play for his defense. It didn’t take long for O’Leary to realize what a tremendous human being he’d brought into the UCF football program. After redshirting in 2006, Miller became a force in all four seasons he lined up for the Knights defense.

“Leaders are hard to find,” O’Leary said of a player unanimously voted as a team captain by his teammates. “Bruce has always been a guy who did by example, not by his mouth. I used to tell him all the time, ‘The locker room is where you win and lose games,’ and he was very aware of that. He’d be very good to the young players and tell them, ‘Here’s how we do things here,’ – not in a condescending way but in a way that was helpful.”

O’Leary was moved by more than the camaraderie Miller inspired, but also the effort in which he played. The UCF coach, who’s been with the program since 2004, doesn’t know if anyone else has ever sacked a quarterback in the same game while playing defensive end, nose tackle and as a three-technique (defensive tackle alignment).

“He could play every position across the front in college,” O’Leary recalled. “He was just so much quicker and had great hand-strength.”

O’Leary also recognized his intelligent, hard-working player was adaptable. Even after being named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, twice, O’Leary knew the NFL could use Miller’s services.

“I thought he was the steal of the draft from where he went,” O’Leary said of the No. 211 overall selection. “I thought the 49ers organization did a great job, as far as evaluating and working with him. He’s a good athlete that has a great effort and passion and enthusiasm. All the things that make up a great player he has.”

Miller had no idea he was being looked at as a potential fullback. Sure, he’d played on offense in high school as a tight end and had experience covering kicks in college on special teams. But in his mind, Miller’s 27 collegiate sacks would earn him a chance to rush the passer in the pros.

The 49ers had other plans.

“I had no idea that was even going on,” Miller said of his pre-draft workout with 49ers scouts. “They asked me to run a few routes as a tight end. I had no idea until the day before the draft that was what they’re thinking for me. I was excited about it.”

Months later, Miller caught 11 passes for 83 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown catch, in his first season in the NFL. The changeover from college pass-rusher to professional blocker isn’t lost on Miller. He knows the uniqueness of the situation.

“It’s crazy to me,” said Miller, who officially considers himself to be an offensive player now that’s been working on offense for the past six months. “I was really excited to have the opportunity to work with Frank Gore, Alex Smith, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, the ones I knew coming into it. But now, the entire offense, I’ve had a blast working with those guys. Twelve months ago I was not foreseeing this. It’s been a great ride and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Gore appreciates the efforts by his rookie fullback. Along with the rest of starting the offensive line, Gore recently purchased Louis Vuitton travel bags for his blockers, Miller included.

“They do all the hard work,” said Gore, who rushed for 1,211 yards and earned his third Pro Bowl selection in his seven-year career. “If they’re not doing their jobs, there’s no me. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get them the Louie bags.”

Gore appreciates the smarts and toughness of his fullback. Aside from learning his first NFL playbook in a month, he learned two positions, too. Miller can not only run all plays at fullback, but has an understanding of the running back’s responsibility within the 49ers offense.

Seeing all his current success, now one win away from playing in the Super Bowl as a rookie, has Miller’s former mentors pleased.

“It’s unbelievable just to see what hard work can do for a kid,” said O’Brien, who’ll admittedly be a nervous wreck when Miller and the 49ers face the New York Giants in Sunday’s NFC Championship game. “It gives a lot of kids that don’t understand (hope); they all think you’ve got to be a great blue-chip athlete. Bruce was not a great blue-chip athlete, but he was a tremendous athlete who worked hard. And given a chance to succeed, he will.”

O’Brien even compared Miller’s individual success to the team’s triumphs in 2011.

“They’ve got great players don’t get me wrong,” O’Brien said, “but they remind me of Bruce.  They’re given an opportunity to do something, they’re doing it to the best of their ability and they’re doing it as a team. As long as the team comes first, they’ve been successful. I just think that’s one of the things he is. It didn’t matter to him, even though he’s getting individual accolades, but the team comes first.”

O’Leary sees it near identically.

“I always said if I ever had to make a statement about Bruce Miller, it would be: ‘He’s going to be the best teammate he can be.’”

That’s exactly what’s happened in San Francisco.

Fellow rookie running back Kendall Hunter likes to trade jabs with Miller about being too-cool-for-school about being named a Pro Bowl alternate, to which Miller fires back about Hunter ignoring his calls.

“That’s my boy,” Hunter said of Miller. “He deserves the success. He’s been working hard. He does the extra things. He does what he can to help the team out and I’m happy for him.”

Even better, Miller now has a stylish travel bag, one that will surely endear him to veterans in the 49ers locker room.

“It makes him look better than how he was coming on the plane,” Gore joked. “Now he get to carry the Louie bag and look good, you know?”

Gore has certainly looked good himself when carrying the ball behind Miller’s blocks. The running duo will look for another strong performance against the Giants on Sunday. And everyone in Miller’s past will be glued to the television.

O’Leary will be handling UCF’s recruiting weekend prior to kickoff but will make sure to be situated in time to watch Miller once more. Ironically, Miller will compete against a team coached by one of O’Leary’s former co-workers.

“I’ll be in front of my T.V. watching the game so nobody bothers me,” O’Leary joked in his heavy Northeast accent. “Tommy Coughlin and I used to work together when we were at Syracuse together so it should be a heck of a game.”

No matter the outcome, those in Miller’s life will enjoy the most recent cover of Sports Illustrated which feature the fullback and three other teammates on the latest cover.

Miller, himself, didn’t realize how much attention it would receive. Meanwhile, O’Brien searched through a local store to find the cover to no avail, and O’Leary is having the cover blown up to be featured inside UCF’s recruiting hall.

“I think the big thing there is that it didn’t surprise me,” O’Leary said. “I told the people that came and asked me a question that he’s the guy you’re overlooking. He’s what great players in the NFL make it with: relentless effort, great second effort. That’s what makes him and he’s a ‘Coach me, Coach,’ attitude guy which I think is prevalent in his play. It doesn’t take him long to understand it. He enjoys the coaching end of it, he’s very respectful to everybody and he treats his teammates well.”

So while Candlestick Park will surely be rocking with a sold-out crowd eager to cheer its team to a sixth Super Bowl appearance, so will several communities outside of California.

For anyone who’s come into contact with Miller, the ride has been worth following at every turn.

“I saw his dad the other day and he comes from a great family,” O’Brien said. “They’re so proud of him. Our football program up here is so proud of him, just as our school is. He was a good role model not only on the football field but in the school building and in the community.”

Being well-liked isn’t hard for Miller. Not when his attitude is on point.

“It’s always been my mentality,” Miller said. “I love to play the game and I love to win. That’s the best way to get things done, put the team before yourself. Do what’s asked and work within the system. Right now for me, that’s playing fullback.”

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