MILLER, TARTANS PUTTING IN THE WORK TO MAKE 2023 SPECIAL
Athletes, regardless of what sport it may be, become great- more often than not- because they are willing to learn and strive to get better.
Highland Regional’s football team looks like it may make some serious noise this season.
It seems to have a group of players and coaches that have been willing to learn together and may be on the verge of putting it all together to hand s state championship banner for the first time in school history…in any sport.
The Tartans have a terrific quarterback in Connor Leary, who is going into his senior season with plenty of interest from college scouts and will be a handful for any defense to deal with this season.
Connor, whose father Brian was an outstanding quarterback at William Paterson University and is the head coach at Highland, certainly has the blood lines with cousins Devin and Donovan making waves across the college football universe.
Devin and Donovan both played for Timber Creek, the Tartans opening day opponent on August 27, a game many consider the headliner of a three-day football event in Ocean City, NJ.
Another player has emerged as a standout for Highland Regional, and that is defensive back/wide receiver Xavier Miller.
While the entire team trained together this offseason, Miller and Leary also attended a number of camps including the Jersey Juice Underclassman Showcase, plus camps held Temple, Holy Cross, Brown and Bryant.
Recently, Miller went solo to a camp held at Villanova.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound speedster was accompanied to the Main Line campus by his father, Augustus Nyekan, Jr, who is a Detective Sergeant First Class for the New Jersey State Police. He just goes by the nickname, “Gus.”
After the camp was over, Miller was asked what he took away from the Mark Ferrante-led event.
“I definitely learned a lot of skills as far as being a DB,” Miller said. “Flipping the heads (type) DB, like breaking on the ball, and I learned how to stay patient during routes. And that’s one of the most important things about being a DB always.”
Both routes I saw Miller defend were battles. The senior-to-be was locked into the receiver every step of the way. But this isn’t a practice back on the school’s campus back in Blackwood, NJ, this is against players a storied Villanova program is looking at.
The receiver did make a highlight reel catch both times.
Coaches though, will tell you what they are looking for during these camps is fast-twitch moves during a route. Great players are going to make plays. Miller showed he had the attributes coaches are looking for.
Miller said he believes he did OK.
“I definitely think I did,” Miller said. “I think on the first route I believe I got a little too hasty. I did get impatient, cause it was a comeback and go…and I bit. The second rep, he ran right into me. It wasn’t a PI (pass interference). [The coaches] said I had good coverage because I didn’t let him go anywhere. I pressed him off the line.”
Miller said going to camps with Leary will help them, not only to bond as teammates, but he believes his role on offense will expand this fall. This is a great opportunity to play against top players from the area as teammates.
“It’s cool because me and Conner both go to Adrenaline (Sports Training facility in Cherry Hill) together,” said Miller, who lists CB Jalen Ramsey of the Miami Dolphins as the NFL player he admires.” That’s our training place. From there, we both train there together so when we go to these camps, we are already synchronized, we’re already there, bonded.”
Adrenaline owner Chad Hallett was asked to talk about Miller’s potential.
“Been working with Xavier for over a year maybe and his strong suit is his speed," Hallett said recently. "During our workouts on the high speed treadmill he's working comfortably at 24 mph.
"I believe he had one of the fastest 40-yard dashes at the Temple camp. The coaches kept making him do it over cause they couldn't believe it. From a performance standpoint he measures up with some of my elite guys, which is great company to be in."
Last season, Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon would talk about how in today’s secondary, players simply play defense. On any given play, a defensive back’s role could go from what would be a traditional safety position to what you’d see from a cornerback.
There are five players back there defending. Read and react.
Miller said that’s his coach’s philosophy…be versatile.
"As our head coach always says, the more positions you can play, the faster you get into the game,” Miller said. “Especially for my defensive back coach, coach Chop (Robert (Chop) Hammond) and my defensive coordinator, Coach Smalls…they definitely teach me how to play…I played safety my first year, this year I play corner. I even moved around like an inside linebacker…so yes, [the coaches] move you around.”
Miller, like his teammates and coaches believe, Highland Regional is ready to take the next step.
“Ever since winter season,” Miller said. “The motivation is…this is our year; we’re going to do it this year. It’s get-back season. Last year we said that but we had a few ups and downs, but we really feel like this year is our year. We have a lot of guys working hard. We’re missing some of our O-line, but we have a lot of guys stepping up.”
What areas does Miller want to improve on himself?
“Definitely, as a DB, I want to be a lockdown DB,” Miller said. “My goal is to allow zero touchdowns this year. That’s going to help my team, and play both ways. I want to score touchdowns, get points. Blocking and making big plays.”
Miller wanted to stress he is not calling the shots on when and where he plays for the Tartans.
“Wherever coach Leary needs me, I’m there.” *
Email Al Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org