Mike Miller has drawn a lot of attention to one of professional football’s most overlooked jobs.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers full-back has led the CFL special team tackle this season with 25. That’s the same total he had in 2019 in 18 games, four fewer than in 2021.
The six-foot, 218-pound, Riverview, New Brunswick native has long been the CFL’s top special teams ace. This season, the 32-year-old broke the special-team record of 190 tackles against former BC Lion Jason Arakgi and amassed 210 in 172 career regular-season games.
Miller looks to win his third Gray Cup ring on Sunday when Winnipeg faces the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Tim Hortons Field.
Miller cannot fully explain his prowess on special teams. But he admits it takes a different mindset to go down the pitch at full speed while avoiding opposition blockers while still being in control to stop on a dime and react to quick kickbacks.
“You have to have an attitude of not giving up,” he said. “I remember Osh (Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea) saying that in an interview, it’s kind of like being in a street fight.
“A lot of times you’re in a one-on-one or one-on-one battle and you have to beat the guy in front of you and come down and try to block someone or make the tackle. You have to really put your body in your body. at stake, not that not everyone in football … but you know that on kickoffs you’re going to run as fast as you can and potentially have to meet someone. “
Miller earned a spot in the Edmonton Elks roster as an undrafted free agent from Acadia in 2011. He spent six seasons in Alberta, winning his first Gray Cup title in 2015.
The following year, Miller led the CFL with 27 special team tackles – still a career high – in 16 regular-season games. But he was released on March 1, 2017 after recording 116 special team tackles in 104 games for Edmonton.
Miller was not unemployed for long, signing with Winnipeg two days later. In his first season with the Bombers, Miller recorded 22 special teams tackles, a team-high, and also scored his first professional touchdown on an 18-yard return from a blocked punt.
Miller was the West Division’s top special teams player and a division star in 2019 after recording 25 special team tackles. He finished the year with a special teams tackle in Winnipeg’s 33-12 Gray Cup victory over Hamilton.
As Miller prepares for his third CFL Championship game, he has a clear idea of what he’s accomplished and where he stands. Winnipeg is not only trying to become the first team to successfully defend its Gray Cup title since the Montreal Alouettes (2009-10), but give Manitoba their first repeat champion since 1961-62.
“It’s (winning the Gray Cup) such a tough thing to do,” said Miller. “(Winning two back-to-back titles) would be pretty amazing if we could do that.”
But Miller cautions against looking too far ahead. He said for the moment his focus is on Hamilton returner Brandon (Speedy) Banks and Papi White, who scored a 92-yard touchdown on a punt return in the Ticates’ 27-19 win in the East Division against Toronto last weekend.
“It’s in his (Banks) name,” Miller said. “He’s probably the fastest, if not the fastest, in the CFL and you absolutely have to contain him and make sure he doesn’t get out of our containment.
“And there’s also White, who did a really good job in the East Final. They have some good guys so we’ll have to be prepared for who we’re going to see.”
Counting his 10th season in the CFL, Miller has learned many tricks of the special teams trade. But it also doesn’t hurt to have a head coach like O’Shea, who played on special teams during a Hall of Fame career as a linebacker and then served as the teams coordinator. Toronto specials (2010-13) before coming to Winnipeg in 2014.
“It’s a wealth of knowledge,” Miller said. “He’s been there and seen a lot of scenarios.
“He knows the rulebook inside and out, so he gives you all the little nuances and stuff like that. “
The vast majority of special team players struggle in relative anonymity, but what they do is often crucial for their teams.
“The position on the field is so huge,” Miller said. “A big, explosive game could be damaging (to the opposition) and also give you huge momentum.”