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Precocious Miller, West taking over offensive line's left side

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After playing in all 12 of UK's games as a freshman, Darrian Miller is projected as the starter at left guard entering the 2012 season. (Brett Marshall, UK Athletics) After playing in all 12 of UK's games as a freshman, Darrian Miller is projected as the starter at left guard entering the 2012 season. (Brett Marshall, UK Athletics)
Following a freshman season in which he defied convention and played meaningful snaps as a newcomer, Darrian Miller devoted himself to building strength and refining his technique. It didn't take long for Miller to realize that his hard work over the offseason had paid off.

Just three practices into fall camp, Miller felt the transformation during a pass-protection drill on Monday. Considering he was going up against a defensive line billed as the strength of this year's Kentucky team, that was an especially good feeling.

"Rather than catching (defensive players) and letting them get into my body, I'm able to push them off of me now," Miller said. "It's not fighting to get them away, it's just, 'Get off me.' "

Miller was unable to recite his weight-room gains on command, saying only he is now "a whole lot stronger." While others might get bogged down in reps and max-out weights, Miller is taking a cue from his coach and focusing on how he puts his increased power into practice.

"I've had guys that could move the weight room, but got run over top of when a defensive lineman pushed on them," offensive line coach Mike Summers said. "Darrian's got the ability to position his body so that he can maximize all the strength that he has. He can maximize his power because of his footwork and athletic ability. I see his functional strength show up on the field in these one-on-one drills."

A season ago, Miller was a talented freshman forced into duty earlier than expected. Injuries along an experienced offensive line put him in a difficult position and there were inevitable moments where he was overmatched by his Southeastern Conference opponents. Other times, he looked like UK's bright future in the trenches. All along, Miller acted like he belonged, remaining unfazed and unsurprised by the controlled chaos around him when he had every reason to come unhinged.

"The fact that we had to force him into action last year was not good for last year's football team, but it was good for his personal development," Summers said. "He made a lot of mistakes when he went in there last year, was put in some really big-time scenarios where he had to think and move and do things that most freshmen shouldn't have to do."

With that experience under his belt, Miller - projected as the starter at left tackle - has a whole new mentality. He's undergone a sort of baptism by fire going up against the best defensive lines the Southeastern Conference and, by extension, the nation have to offer. Now, he'll have no trouble going eye-to-eye with any defensive end or blitzing linebacker that comes his way.

"Not intimidated in the least," Miller said. "I've gotten a lot better over the offseason technically and physically. I'm pretty confident coming into the season."

Though still soft-spoken and thoughtful, Miller is unmistakably brimming with self-assurance. Miller knows how hard he has worked, he knows what he is getting into and it's showing every day on the practice field.

"The confidence that he's shown so far in his pass protection has come out in the intensity of his play," Summers said. "I'm not proclaiming him All-American four days into it, but I'm encouraged with what I see and encouraged with the development I've seen from him over the summer and what I've seen from him on the field."

Zach West would be hard-pressed to match Miller's confidence having not yet played a college snap, but the redshirt freshman has made significant progress since being listed as the starter at left guard this spring.

"There's a big difference, I think, in both of us," West said of himself and Miller. "We definitely have a lot more confidence in the offensive system. We're louder. Coach Phillips always said we were quiet in the spring, but I feel like, over the summer, we really worked hard on communicating and knowing what was going on in the defense before really everything happened."

West spent his redshirt year watching classmate Miller go through the process of lining up along a college offensive line for the first time. There's no avoiding some of the growing pains associated with that and West still bears the "freshman" designation for a reason, but he has an indisputable leg up after sitting out a season.

"Zach is stepping in now kind of in the same scenario that Darrian was last year in terms of experience, but he has had a year to be with us," Summers said. "And he practiced with me all last year on the second team even when we held him out of playing. His knowledge is where it needs to be. We just need to get him reps so he understands the speed of the game."

Recognizing his potential as well as the dire situation along the offensive line due to injury, Summers not only put West on the second team, but also had him travel with the team on all road trips beginning around midway through the season.

Every step of the way, West was there to learn. He observed the habits of the veterans and watched as Miller coped with playing so early. What he picked up more than anything else is that asking questions is a good thing.

"(Miller) learned a lot from the older guys really quick," West said. "He asked everything he could from the older guys and that's what I'm doing now. (Seniors) Larry (Warford) and Matt (Smith) have been here a long time and that's what I'm trying to learn from them."

Making it ever easier for West to learn from Miller's example was the fact that the two Lexington natives quickly developed a close bond. Was it a shared hometown that brought them together? Playing the same position?

None of the above.

"We're pretty strange people," Miller said. "I'm pretty sure I've said that before, but we're both pretty strange."

Miller couldn't quite put his finger on what makes the pair strange, but he had no trouble identifying what that tight relationship can mean on the field.

"It's great, actually," Miller said. "I room with him this semester, and being able to know where the other person may fall short or where their weaknesses are, it just helps a lot to know the strengths and weaknesses of the player beside you and not being in the dark."

Reflective of their like-mindedness, West's answer to the same question was remarkably similar.

"We know each other's weaknesses and our strengths," West said. "We're together a lot of times. We live together so it's definitely a big opportunity to be with each other."

Arriving on campus as classmates, Miller and West thought quickly about the possibility of manning the left side of UK's offensive line in the future. The fact that it's happening so early has to come as somewhat of a shock though.

"It's not really surprising," Miller said. "But, then again, I don't really get surprised by much."

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