All the Right Moves 

Will the Grizzlies’ new quarterback be UM’s next big thing?

At first glance, the kid doesn't look like anything special. He lacks the stereotypical imposing frame of an athlete. Medium height, medium build-if you saw him on the street you might fail to separate him from the crowd. You might miss him. There is no sign around his neck that says "star quarterback."

To fully understand it, you have to see him play the game. You have to see the confident, three-step drop, the crisp motions, and the release. The release is what sells it. The instant the ball leaves his hand, cutting through the air with an almost audible zip, you realize that Drew Miller is going to be a college football superstar.

But then again, you probably already knew that.

Miller made waves in the Montana sports world months ago, before he ever even set foot in town. The first reports that splashed across the local sports section in mid-December of last year said that Miller, then an unhappy back-up QB at Brigham Young University, had included Montana on a short list of possible transfer destinations. A handful of division I-A schools were also on that list, and Salt Lake City's Deseret News named UM's Big Sky Conference foe Eastern Washington as Miller's "likely destination."

The early story was vague, the kind that sportswriters scrape together on the fly, late in the afternoon when news breaks. It was enough to get the small-town gossip generator fired up, but didn't offer up a lot of answers. Only a couple of things were for sure: Miller wanted out of BYU and didn't seem to be interested in sitting out a year, which cued the two I-AA schools to the front of the line.

Miller paid a weekend visit to UM, and immediately the tune of the local media coverage began to change. The Cougar quarterback had obviously been impressed by what he saw in Missoula. Reports that he had even considered attending Eastern were now said to have been false. Miller would wait to make an official announcement until after BYU's Liberty Bowl appearance against Tulane, but the papers had basically confirmed that he was going to be a Grizzly.

"There were some good things [about EWU]," Miller says. "But it came down to football, whether you are going to win games or lose games, and whether you're going to play in front of 20,000 people or 2,000 people. Plus, the tradition and style of offense at Montana made this place a perfect fit for me."

And vice versa. Montana lost senior and three-year starting QB Brian Ah Yat at the completion of the 1998 season. The Grizzlies were coming off two consecutive up-and-down years that both ended at 8-4, with less-than-satisfying losses in the first round of the I-AA playoffs. That, coupled with the on-going exodus of UM coaches, left many Missoula football fans feeling strangely unsettled. There was marked concern that the touted "Griz dynasty" of mid-'90s might be splitting at the seams.

The woes, whether real or imagined, spawned an undercurrent of public opinion that the team had taken a half-step backwards. It was in this environment, with demanding, perhaps spoiled fans convinced they needed answers, that Drew Miller showed up on Montana's doorstep.

"I knew a ton about the great tradition of quarterbacks here," Miller says of his final decision to play for the Grizzlies. "Then I found out that basically all the receivers were returning this year, the backs were returning, and the line was going to be so deep. Once I considered those factors, coming here was a no-brainer."

Arriving in time for spring practice, Miller used the opportunity to debut his skills in person for the Montana coaching staff and the community. He threw 10 touchdown passes at the spring drills, six of which came during the final scrimmage. After a controversy-free competition with freshmen John Edwards and Nick Walker, Miller was named the Grizzlies' starting quarterback at the tail end of the spring session. Now, he says, he understands what's expected of him.

"The standard has been set by guys like Ah Yat and [Dave] Dickenson, so I know there's going to be expectations; that comes with the position," Miller says. "I'm just going to go out there and worry about playing the best that I can, playing my game. I'm going to let all the questions and concerns answer themselves and just concentrate on playing football."

Miller's arrival at Montana did not go unnoticed by the rest of the Big Sky. At the season kickoff ceremony in Utah last month, both the coaches and the media ranked the Grizzlies No. 1 in the conference. Up and down the line coaches admitted that the presence of Drew Miller was a factor in their vote. EWU coach Erik Kramer asserted that, although he hasn't yet taken a live snap, Miller is already the best quarterback in the league. Kramer added the Miller has "all the tools" needed to win a national championship, making a strong case that everything in Grizzlyville is just fine after all.

The Natural

For Drew Miller, when he was growing up in Tacoma, Wash., learning the game of football was almost unavoidable. Miller's father, David, is the offensive coordinator of the football team at Lakes High School, and would often bring his work home with him.

"I can remember being in fifth or sixth grade, sitting down with my dad while he was watching film," Miller says. "All of a sudden, without me even knowing it, I'm studying film and I'm learning football. I was learning how defenses work and how offenses work against defenses. I was always around football. From a young age I was able to get a good feel for the game, strategy-wise."

Miller got to see the game from the inside out, tagging along with Dad during practice and games. He says it was then that the game first got its hooks into him.

"I would go to practice with them, because I was a ball-boy until I was old enough to play," he remembers. "I saw the camaraderie and all that stuff, and I wanted to be part of it. That's what made me want to play football.

"It helped a lot too that my dad didn't push me at all. He just said, 'if you want to play football, play football.' The thing that he stressed the most to me was that whatever I chose to do, do it 110 percent and never look back."

First, Miller says, although he grew up idolizing Joe Montana, he experimented with baseball. He played pitcher in little league, where his natural ability to throw began to present itself. That talent eventually brought him back to the sport that was closest to him, the one he grew up with at home.

"All through little league I knew I had a strong arm, stronger than most of the other kids my age. Then I picked up a football and started throwing it with the high school kids and soon it just felt really natural to me."

Miller says he never played a different position. He never wanted to do anything but throw the ball, and having been raised to read defenses, most coaches were more than willing to oblige.

"Since about sixth grade I knew that [quarterback] was where I wanted to play. I was just blessed to be able to do it. I have the mentality and I developed a feel for it, growing up with a football coach for a dad. It was weird, because I just had a talent for it."

He would eventually play for his father at Lakes High. During his four years there, Miller was a three-time all-state selection and was named player of the year twice. He averaged 374 yards per game, setting 11 Washington State passing records. He was named an All-American by both USA Today and Street and Smith's, while also lettering multiple times in baseball and basketball.

"In the kind of offense I'd been playing in for four years, we'd been throwing the ball all over the field," Miller says. "I knew that was my strength, and I definitely wanted to go somewhere [for college] that was going to do the same thing."

After recruiting trips to Arizona State, Notre Dame, Washington State and Oregon he committed to play at Brigham Young University. According to Miller, the natural surroundings, strength of coaching staff, and commitment to the pass made BYU seem like the natural choice.

"They've had awesome success throwing the ball in the past," Miller says. "They've also had incredible success with their quarterbacks and that was very attractive to me, I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to try to continue that tradition."

According to Miller, though, some of the social aspects of life on the BYU campus made him feel alienated. He understood and followed strict rules that forbade such things as long hair, facial hair and tank tops, but he says they felt foreign to him. And attending religious classes made him feel like an outsider.

For myself, since I'm not Mormon, it was kind of different there," Miller says. "Going to sit in Mormon class and not being Mormon, I was confused. I felt really uncomfortable, just really quite a bit out of place in those classes."

Miller contends that his personal solace at BYU was on the field. He characterizes playing for head coach Lavelle Edwards as a memorable, rewarding experience. The BYU system fit him naturally, and he felt confident that he could contribute there.

"Football down there is football," Miller explains. "The fans were great. BYU football is huge in that area. It was fun and I met some awesome people there. I wouldn't trade my experiences there for anything in the world. I grew a lot in my two years there."

But if it can be said that BYU left its mark on Drew Miller, the opposite is also true. Salt Lake Tribune writer Michael C. Lewis reports that, during his tenure with the Cougars, Miller had a sizable fan club who felt that he should be starting, instead of playing second fiddle to Kevin Feterik. When asked, the BYU coaching staff gives Miller nothing but glowing reviews.

"First and foremost, Drew is a great individual," Head Coach Edwards says. "He's the kind of guy who works hard and is really well-respected by his teammates."

His final season at BYU Miller suffered a separated shoulder which Miller describes as "a setback" in his quest to be a starter. Aside from the injury, Miller says he began to feel like he was wasn't being given a fair opportunity to start in the Cougar offense. Near the end of the season he made the definite decision to leave BYU.

"In two years there I played in 15 or 16 games, so playing time wasn't even a factor in my decision," Miller says. "It was the fact that I didn't feel like I should be sitting. I felt like I should be given a chance, more of a chance than I was getting. Basically, that's what it came down to. I didn't feel like I was getting a fair shake."

Both the BYU coaching staff and Miller say they spilt on good terms. Miller simply states that his arrangement with BYU just "wasn't meant to be." Lavelle Edwards says he's sorry it didn't work out between them, but wishes the best for Miller in his future with Montana.

"Drew has an outstanding, innate sense for the game and for the position of quarterback," Edward says. "If ever there was a kid who was born to play quarterback, it was Drew."

But Montana Head Coach Mick Dennehy seems more inclined to hold his cards a bit closer to his chest than Edwards when it comes to handing out praise for Miller. He is, after all, the one who might be sitting on the winning lottery ticket.

"I'm not going jinx him by talking about how great he is," Dennehy says. "I'll just say that he looks very good and we're happy to have him here."

Miller echoes Dennehy's sentiments.

"I'm in love with this place," he says. "I think , overall, things worked out for the best."

The New Deal

Now, Miller takes the helm of a Montana offense that has been somewhat revamped since the end of last season. Foremost, the Grizzlies are without former offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who left Missoula for conference rival Northern Arizona during the off-season. The Griz replaced Pease in March with Bob Cole, who had spent the last six seasons at Portland State University. Cole's offensive philosophy stays true to the high-flying ethos that put UM on the national map, although he promises a more diverse, complete attack.

"The key to Coach Cole's offense is to be unpredictable," Miller says. "We're going to be able to run several different plays out of each formation so that teams can't come out and say 'OK, they're going to run.' We're going to have a lot of different looks, and we're definitely going to have a lot of different threats we can go to in different areas."

Already, rumors of double tight end sets, less shotgun and more play action passing have emerged from fall camp. But Montana's coaching staff contends that the laymen won't notice any major changes in the revered Grizzly offense, that the main thrust will still be focused on the pass. UM isn't going to run the ball anymore than they have in the past, they say, they're just going to run it better.

"[Cole] was a quarterback himself, so he loves to put the ball in the air," Miller says. "That's why he came here, that's why I came here. We're still definitely going to be more pass-happy. But with our line and our running backs, we're going to be able to run the ball, too. We believe in order to win [playoff games] you've got to have a balanced offense. That's what we're going to concentrate on."

side from their commitment to develop a strong running game, the Grizzlies will feature a receiving corps that should rival any in the country at the I-AA level. Seniors Jeremy Watkins and Travis Walker anchor the group that also includes junior two-sport phenom Jim Ferris, as well as Tanner Hancock, who transferred to Montana from the University of Kansas. Perhaps the most exciting new addition to the group is sophomore Etu Molden, who crossed over from defense and has shown a wealth of offensive prowess.

"You can't pick just one guy," Miller says about Montana's receivers. "You've got Etu, Watty, Travis, Ferris. Plus, Tanner Hancock's looking really good. We've got too many quality receivers to say that one guy is going to be our go-to guy."

Montana also returns a fearsome defensive unit that lost only one starter after last season. A shaky start to the '98 campaign left the D-unit determined to get out of the gate fast this year hoping to be tops in the conference from the word go.

"Our maturity level has improved unbelievably since last year," says junior linebacker Adam Boomer, who led the team in tackles last season. "We've got a whole bunch of good leaders in the right positions."

The Griz linebackers are perhaps the most impressive position group on the team. Sports Illustrated, which ranked Montana at No. 10 in the country in the preseason, selected Boomer and senior Marcus Wilson as the team's standout performers. The 'backers also have the luxury of playing with returning senior Rylan Jollymore, who injured his knee against Southern Utah last year. Sophomores Matt Steinau and Jacob Yoro will also share in the action.

"Right now we're looking pretty tight," Boomer says. "It's slowly coming together. So far, we haven't had a lot of contact so it's kind of hard to say, but I think we're right where we need to be."

Boomer credits Montana's offense for helping the defense pick up speed going into the season.

"In practice we play against what's probably the biggest line in the country, the best receiving corps, the best quarterback, and we see that everyday," Boomer says. "That can't help but make us a better, more solid group."

The first-team offense and No. 1 defensive unit were afforded the opportunity to see each other in real-time on Aug. 21, when Montana held its first scrimmage of the fall. Both squads looked evenly matched which, according to the team, was to be expected. Miller, for his part, racked up 103 yards passing, going 4-of-7.

Meanwhile, in his new spot at the helm, Drew Miller is getting more than his share of media attention and public scrutiny, and he says he doesn't mind it. It is the nature of the Montana Grizzly offense to put the quarterback on a pedestal, and he understands that.

"It's actually very motivating for me," Miller says. "It makes me want to be that much better, so I can go out and answer all the questions people have about me in a great way. I don't feel any pressure from that. I look at it like I'm just one of 100 players. I just happen to have the ball in my hands on every offensive play."

Montana fans will get their first chance to see the retooled team in action when the Griz open their season Sept. 4 at home against Division II underdogs South Dakota.

Whatever the outcome, Drew Miller definitely has gotten Montana fans' hopes up for the upcoming season. All the hard work having been done, the thing only left to do now is to play the games.

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