PHOENIX — Running with the football has always come easy to Dolphins rookie running back Lamar Miller. Even at the NFL level he’s having immediate success, with 119 yards on just 13 carries (5.9 average) this season, with a touchdown and another 22-yard run to his credit.
The Dolphins made him inactive for the season opener, but Miller played well enough to earn carries in a crowded backfield the past two games. Miller should continue to make a bigger impact today against the Cardinals, especially with Reggie Bush not 100 percent with a knee injury.
“That’s what I expected of him. He’s very talented,” said defensive end Olivier Vernon, a fellow rookie and former teammate at the University of Miami. “Every time I see him, he’s running full speed everywhere. He’s a horse, man. He never gets tired.”
Miller’s performance through two games has his old coaches and teammates with the Hurricanes buzzing with excitement.
“It seems like he’s got his burst, and he’s getting the edge in the NFL, which is really hard to do,” Hurricanes coach Al Golden said. “He’s not a guy who left with 40 starts and X amount of carries. His odometer is down, and if he stays healthy, his trend is going to be positive.”
But as Miller also is quickly learning, there’s more to playing running back in the NFL than just carrying the football. He rushed for 1,918 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons with the Hurricanes but caught just 15 total passes and almost always came out on third down, so he never had to worry about pass protection.
Now the playbook is thicker, the audibles at the line of scrimmage are more complex and the Dolphins want him to be a complete player, including a contributor on special teams. All of the closest people around Miller – running backs coach Jeff Nixon and teammates Bush and Daniel Thomas – work with him daily to help him improve.
“Just letting me know where I’m supposed to be at all times and just trying to get (me to be) more physical in pass protection,” said Miller, born and raised in Miami and a former star at Killian High. “You have a lot of responsibility at this level.”
Miller, like most rookies, is a work in progress. He’s still learning how to dance less in the backfield and hit the holes harder. Coach Joe Philbin told Miller this week he needs to get more yards when running near the sideline instead of heading out of bounds.
Miller had an effective 48 yards on nine carries in last week’s loss to the Jets but also missed one of Ryan Tannehill’s audible calls and ran the wrong way on a handoff, forcing Tannehill to scramble for a 3-yard loss.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman not-so-subtly reminded Miller this week that “he’s now being paid to play football, and it’s inexcusable to make those type of mistakes.” Miller didn’t need to be told.
“That was my rookie mistake,” said Miller, 21. “It happened so fast, and I just went the wrong way. I know it’s something I’ve got to get better at.”
But there’s no question that the Dolphins are impressed with Miller’s running ability, the main reason they traded up to the 97th overall pick to select him in April’s draft. Philbin said Miller’s gaffe last week won’t affect his playing time and said he’s “showing some real positive qualities.” Bush said he’s been impressed with Miller’s toughness.
“I think he had an adjustment period, as we all do when we’re rookies,” Bush said. “But I think he’s doing a great job now at finishing plays, finishing runs, and I think you saw in the last game that he made some really good runs for us.”
Sherman said his playcalling didn’t change much last week when Thomas and Miller replaced Bush in the second half.
“We expect those guys to step in and do certain things,” Sherman said. “Obviously, the young guys aren’t quite at Reggie’s level, but as far as playcalling, it didn’t affect it whatsoever.”
Sherman also has been impressed with Miller’s attitude.
“He’s a very smart football player, takes the coaching real well,” Sherman said. “He wants to be great and he wants you to tell him how he can get there. He’s been very receptive.”