When Carolina Panthers rookie Christian Miller was 4, he persuaded his father to let him play organized tackle football with older kids. The results were predictable.
He got run over.
But instead of whimpering away, Christian asked his dad, former NFL linebacker Corey Miller, how to compete.
“I told him to stop standing up straight, to stay low” on defense, Corey Miller recalled. “He made a perfect-form tackle” to knock over a much bigger kid.
Beyond proper technique, those early experiences taught Christian Miller to be a patient problem-solver, to not assume success comes simply or easily.
He was honest enough with himself to volunteer to red shirt at Alabama because he didn’t feel he was ready to play right away. His approach got him through multiple injuries, most seriously a biceps tear in 2017, that held back his college career.
Now he’s a fourth-round pick by the Panthers, who could be a good fit at the hybrid linebacker-defensive end position Carolina needs as it evolves toward more 3-4 defensive alignments.
Miller isn’t as spectacular as the Panthers’ first-round pick, Florida State’s Brian Burns, who plays the same position. But coach Ron Rivera said Miller shares traits with Burns — a combination of long arms and first-step quickness — the Panthers value.
While Burns had two sacks in the first preseason game against the Chicago Bears, Miller’s performance was less flashy, but solid. Christian told his father he graded 94 percent on carrying out assignments when the assistant coaches reviewed video of that game.
Christian Miller, who grew up in South Carolina, was projected as one of the top outside linebacker prospects in the country coming out of high school in Columbia. He didn’t shine for the Crimson Tide until last year, his senior season, when he finished with eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Miller knows those sacks got him drafted, but his priority right now is showing the coaches he’s an all-around defensive player.
“Honestly, I think my biggest trait is versatility,” Miller said. “Obviously, I think pass rush is really important and one of the things that sticks out. But I like to look at it as, ‘If it’s first or second down and I’m standing up (in run defense at linebacker), am I a factor? Do I set the edge and run with tight ends?’
“And when I put my hand in the dirt, can I rush the passer or move around in other third-down packages?’”
Miller has always had a superior mix of size and athleticism. He understands that in the NFL, he’s no longer rare in that regard.
“When you get to the NFL, you immediately realize there are a lot more” special athletes.. “I definitely agree that with someone like Brian, and me and even Bruce” Irvin, athleticism is the distingushing characteristic.
“And with Mario (Addison, transitioning from defensive end to linebacker) who had traditionally been a hand-in-the-dirt end, he’s so quick-twitch and athletic that half the time he’s showing us how it’s done.”
Miller says some of his mobility comes from him not playing exclusively football growing up. In middle school, he fell in love with soccer. Though he didn’t play on his high school team, he participated in two recreational leagues until heading off to Alabama.
“Change-of-direction is very important in football, and you definitely gain that playing soccer,” Miller said. “It helps create opportunity in your pass rush. It helps you set up your moves, it helps you get off the ball.
“Moving your feet — really picking them up — and changing direction, that’s a big thing.”
Just be a dad
Quickly after the game against the Bears, Christian Miller called his father for feedback. Corey was also an outside linebacker, who played eight NFL seasons with the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. He knows all the nuances.
But instead of picking apart what he saw on television, Corey Miller simply told Christian he was proud of him and waited for Christian to ask if he wanted a critique.
That’s not always how Corey parented. He was quicker to criticize his older son, C.J., who played college basketball.
“I was pretty hard on C.J., telling him what he did wrong more than just encouraging him,” Corey Miller recalled. “I wanted to be a more godly father to my children. When I was playing, I wasn’t always there watching them. I wanted to be more.”
And also to be less, in a sense.
“Not ever be overbearing to him,” Corey said of his current relationship with Christian.
So he waited until Christian asked, “What do you see?” before offering any specifics.
Christian says that’s exactly what he needs from his father, who is now more apt to text him bible verses than football chatter.
“He loves to be out here and watch. Any time he can offer me tips, he’s willing to,” Christian described.
“But he’s not pushing anything on me. Really, he’s just there for the support.”