Miller lays out RB Ahman Green
Whenever the Jets needed a spark last season, one man was seemingly always there to step up to the challenge and provide it. Justin Miller, the lone Pro Bowl representative for the 2006 Jets, turned heads and broke records as a lethal kickoff return man for the Green & White special teams unit.
Miller, who also started five games at cornerback, gained 1,304 kickoff return yards in 2006 en route to his first Pro Bowl selection. The second-year player out of Clemson now has 2,881 career return yards, which ranks him third behind Bruce Harper (5,407) and Bobby Humphery (2,974) in Jets history.
"He ran exceptionally hard. He's strong and he's tough. He did not really see the hole and quite get it early on. As the season went on, he got better and better," said special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff. "I don't know if he ever misses a play - that's impressive for a young guy."
A young guy to say the least, as Miller checked in to training came last summer at just 22-years-old. This Valentines Day marks his 23rd birthday, making Miller the youngest player on the Jets' roster. Miller was drafted by the Jets in the second round of the 2005 draft after just three seasons with the Tigers. Since arriving in Hempstead, the coaching staff has seen a considerable change in Miller's approach to the game and it showed this year.
"I think it has progressed the entire time since he has been here," said Westhoff of Miller's maturation. "When he came in, you could see a young guy, you saw an immature guy, but as time has gone on, he is here every day. He has really worked hard and I like the way he has matured."
After an impressive training camp in which he earned the starting cornerback role opposite Andre Dyson, Miller was primed to make a lasting impact in his sophomore season – and he didn't wait long. When the Jets and Titans were knotted at 16 apiece in the season opener at Tennessee, Miller caught a kickoff at his two-yard-line and sliced through the Titan coverage before being pushed out of bounds at the Jets' 43. That 41-yard return with less than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter set up the Jets' eventual game-winning touchdown. The 5'10", 196-pound Kentucky native also accounted for five tackles and two pass deflections on defense.
After the Jets split their next two games, Miller quickly became a household name in a week four tilt at the Meadowlands against the eventual Super Bowl XLI Champion Indianapolis Colts. Not only did he finish the game with a team-high nine solo tackles, Miller carved his name into the Jets' record books with his 103-yard kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"My return team was ready for me to come out," said Miller after his second career touchdown return. "They went out and blocked, put everything on the line and that is all I can ask of them. I just ask the guys to get in the way. It doesn't have to be a big block or something spectacular. Just get in the way and I'll do the rest."
Before Miller's record breaking run, the last Jets player to return a kickoff for more than 100 yards was Leon Johnson in a 1997 contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Meadowlands.
Miller's progression on special teams took off from there. In week seven against the Lions, Miller averaged more than 32 yards on three returns - one of which covered 56 yards. In the following week at Cleveland, Miller accounted for the Jets' only touchdown when he returned a kickoff 99 yards for his third career touchdown.
"He has a chance each time he touches the ball to do something really positive," said head coach Eric Mangini of Miller. "What I like about the way he runs is it is so aggressive, and it's physical and it's tough and it's attacking. He's a returner, but he's taking the fight to the opposition."
In December, Miller was voted to the 2007 Pro Bowl in a consensus vote by the fans, the coaches, and the players. His average of 28.3 yards per kickoff return was best in the NFL for returners with more than ten opportunities. Only Miller and Bears' rookie Devin Hester had multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns this season, while Miller's 103-yard return in week four proved to be the season's longest kickoff returned for a touchdown.
"I think any time that you have a homerun hitter in that phase of the game – it is a tremendous asset," Mangini said of Miller. "When I think of Justin, I think of him the way that he approaches the kickoff return game. He's very strong and he's very aggressive. He has that attacking style, which is outstanding. He has a very important role for us on special teams and needs to continue to develop his role defensively."