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Bombers' special teams ace Mike Miller proud to be closing in on all-time CFL tackling record

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There are times when Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Mike O’Shea can’t believe his team was able to sign one of the greatest special teams tacklers in CFL history as a free agent in 2017.

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“I still think about getting him here and I’m shocked that we were able to get him,” O’Shea said of Mike Miller, a 32-year-old fullback who has established himself as a special teams master over his nine-year career.

“He’s a great teammate, he understands the game of football, he’s a great mentor in the running back room and for special teams, he’s always helping somebody out and taking control of situations. There’s nothing not to like about him.”

Miller spent the first six seasons of his career with the Edmonton Eskimos, averaging almost 20 special teams tackles per year. O’Shea, being a former special teams player and coach himself, couldn’t have asked to have a player more to his liking than Miller come over to join the Bombers.

“When we were introducing our special teams players (at the beginning of training camp), Mike Miller was the only guy we introduced that day,” O’Shea said. “I know he doesn’t like that stuff but his presence in the drill work is just a great teaching tool.

“Any bit of film that gets played of Mike Miller playing special teams, it’s being done right, it’s being done the way we want it, being done at a high level, with a great degree of physicality and skill. And the play usually ends up in Mike Miller’s favour. Anytime these young guys can see that, it’s a great picture for them to learn from. Just having him around them, just to talk special teams with them, I think they can understand how important it is and how to be successful as a pro special teamer.

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“He’s been excellent at it his entire career.”

After three seasons in Winnipeg, Miller is on the verge of becoming the all-time leading special teams tackler in the CFL. He’ll start the 2021 season just five tackles back of current record holder Jason Arakgi.

“I haven’t thought about it too much, I guess,” Miller said after a Bombers training camp session on Saturday at the University of Manitoba. “I’ve been more focused just on getting back into the swing of things and playing football again. I’m just happy that we’re able to do this again … it was a long off-season. I’m not even sure how many (tackles) I’m actually away from (the record) but I’m just happy to be back playing football again.”

Miller was named the West Division’s most outstanding special teams player in 2019, losing out to kick returner Frankie Williams of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for the league award. He was also a West Division all-star after recording 25 special teams tackles during the regular season, and he helped the Bombers win the Grey Cup for the first time in 29 years.

Not bad for a guy who started as a defensive back in 2011, moved to linebacker and eventually to fullback, where he occasionally gets offensive touches with the Bombers.

While he remains one of the best special teamers in the entire league, he also plays an important role in bringing along the next generation of players who will do anything to make a team.

“I definitely talk to a lot of the Canadian rookies, and even the Americans, just to be able to let them know the importance of special teams,” Miller said. “They don’t realize how important special teams is up here. It’s huge, it’s one-third of the game and field position is everything. When you get a lot of two-and-outs, keeping the other team pinned or getting a big return, it can create huge momentum swings in the CFL.

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“I try to lead by example in practice and if any of the rookies or young guys have a question, you know, I’m open to answer them and try to help them along as best as I can.”

That sounds very much like the “O’Shea Way.” Time and again, Bombers veteran players talk about becoming teachers and providing guidance to younger players who could conceivably take their jobs.

Though undrafted, Miller has carved out a terrific career because of his ‘adaptable mentality.’

“I came into the CFL as a defensive back,” Miller said. “I knew from talking to other guys that played in the CFL, how important special teams were.

“It was something I did well in university, so even when I was sending out my highlight tapes to teams, coming out of university, I made sure I had a lot of special teams tape on there. I went in with the mentality of that was how I was going to be able to contribute as a rookie. I had to earn my way onto a team by showing effort and showing that I wanted to be there and do the things that my teammates needed me to do.

“I do take a lot of pride in the role that I play and I’ve played throughout all of my career. To see that it has paid off, all the time and effort that I’ve put into it, that is definitely a cool thing.”

Twyman@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/Ted_Wyman

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