For the majority of his Florida Gators career, Ventrell Miller would speak softly, gently almost, with a tendency to cast his eyes down so as not to seem an affront to those around him. At first meeting, one could call him shy, maybe even unsure. This bulking linebacker with the soul of a teddy bear could have easily been overlooked for the more ravenous teammates around him.
But Christian Robinson—the Gators linebacker coach came to Gainesville with Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham in 2018, when Miller was a redshirt freshman—saw something more in the young LB.
Miller was docile but not meek; quiet but with something to say. Gentle with the ability to wreck an offense. So when Miller walked into “Coach Rob’s” office one day in 2018, on the verge of upset, Robinson invested in a talent that had potential.
“Hopefully he doesn’t get mad at me for telling this story - but I remember it was early in the season that first year in 2018, and he comes in my office. You know how somebody comes in and you know somebody’s upset, something’s on their heart, and he goes on to tell me, ‘Coach, I just want an opportunity. I want to be able to play,’” Robinson recently recalled.
Having played for Todd Grantham and the Georgia Bulldogs, Robinson (who was only 28 at the time) remembered all too clearly what that worry can feel like for a player. So he laid out the best possible plan for Miller to achieve his potential.
“I’m sitting there and thinking back to my days playing. As a coach you have to tell them what they need to hear, but you also want to give them hope. That’s something my dad always told me, don’t take your players’ hope, give them hope. I said, ‘Ventrell, you have the ability to play here. It’s going to be all these other things we got to get you on. The confidence to fit blocks, to cover certain people.’”
A year later, the Gators were leading the Miami Hurricanes 24-20, in Week 0 of the 2019 college football season. The Canes had the ball though and were marching down field with 1:33 to go in the game. Miami called a timeout and Miller—who had started outside middle linebacker David Reese II and already had two sacks on the night—felt those insecurities rise back up.
He looked at Robinson in the huddle and told him, “Coach I don’t know if I can go.”
Robinson reminded him of that conversation in his office a year before.
“I said, ‘This is where you wanted to go. This is where you wanted to be. When the game’s on the line, your belly’s burning. You want to be in these moments.’”
With that pep talk, Robinson sent Miller back onto the field. Seven plays and two Gator pass-interference calls later, the Canes were knocking at the door of a last second win. They were facing a 3rd and 12 from the Gators 26-yard line. Jarret Williams dropped back and looked for tight end Brevin Jordan. The tight end had torched the Gators all night, leading his team with 88-yards and a touchdown on five receptions.
Williams went deep, to the endzone. It would've been a safeties territory, except Miller had stuck with the tight end. He stuck his hand in like a defensive back and broke up the would be go-ahead score.
One play later, Jeremiah Moon tripped up Williams to end the game. It was the turning point for Ventrell Miller and subsequently the Florida Gators linebacker corps. Christian Robinson couldn’t have been prouder.
“To see him grow from a guy—not that you don’t trust him—but he needs the reps to get the confidence to go execute, to a guy that can withstand being in the game when the game is on the line to a guy that is a leader in the locker room, holding the guys accountable. That is exactly what this program is about and guys that do things the right way, that work extremely hard. The day Coach Mullen got here, if hard work sounds good to you this is the place for you. That’s Ventrell Miller in a heartbeat.”
And now, Ventrell Miller is the heartbeat.
With the graduation of David Reese II, there was suddenly a hole at middle linebacker. Robinson and Grantham have worked several guys at the position, something especially important this season with the possibility of guys missing time due to COVID-19. But there’s no question who is in charge. The former soft-spoken Miller, who is now the voice of the corps.
"Ventrell Miller's been just great,” praises Robinson.
"I've talked to anybody and everybody that will listen that he's done everything we've asked him to do and had a great attitude. Him and…James Houston and Mohamoud Diabate, Lacedrick Brunson, we've had all those guys in my room and I've really enjoyed the effort and energy that they've had. It's been, I think those guys leading the way and having been here have helped a lot of those young guys in terms of Hopper and Jesiah and Wingo getting used to what it's going to be like playing on Saturdays going forward.
“The way we really develop it is everybody is responsible for articulating what we’re doing. If I was say who my leader is, the guy I think captain-type material that’s Ventrell Miller.”
Added Grantham, “any time you lose a guy like David, who's been a veteran and has played a lot of snaps here, has been a quarterback, that's a situation you've got to really work with. Been very impressed with Ventrell Miller and his leadership role. Ventrell has done a good job of losing a little bit of weight. You can see it athletically the way he's playing. Obviously you've got him, you've got James Houston, and then trying to get some of the young guys in there as well. Really been pleased with Ventrell's leadership at that position.”
After losing about 15 pounds during the offseason, he’s taken his game up a step in practice. Of course, that’s partly thanks to tight end Kyle Pitts as well, as Robinson explains.
"He’s running and keeping up with Kyle Pitts in practice. That’s what I tell him every day. You’re playing against one of the best tight ends in all of college football. One of the best I’ve been around. You really get to test your ability when you go up against the best. That’s something to me that builds confidence.
“That’s only going to make you more confident when you play in places like A&M or up at Tennessee when we go on the road - that confidence level to go execute against the best that we’ll see on a day-to-day basis.”
Each practice rep, each game snap and each moment of being pushed by those around him, Ventrell Miller transforms more into the player he described to Christian Robinson two years ago, one that the Florida Gators will need during the 2020 season. And there is no one who feels that more than Ventrell Miller himself.
“Definitely my confidence is better," admits Miller.
"I feel like the more reps you get, the more time you go out there and play these different teams, just like the more confidence you’ll have, so I’m definitely looking forward to the season and the more things I can accomplish for myself and as a team.”