KNOXVILLE — One play ended up having little impact on the final score.
The other came with it in the balance.
Corey Miller rescued Tennessee from a potentially disastrous loss to South Alabama with a late-game sack, but the senior defensive end’s tackle on a short-field-goal return may have had a greater significance.
It’s that kind of effort first-year coach Butch Jones is trying to instill as he tries to revive a struggling program, and it’s perhaps the best outlet for Miller as he mans a leadership role for the Volunteers.
“It makes you feel good because you’re taking what he’s teaching and you’re putting it on the field,” Miller said after Tennessee practiced Tuesday in preparation for Saturday’s game with sixth-ranked Georgia.
“You’re giving them something to look at as an example, to actually show that what he’s talking about works. For all the rest of the guys, I hope they’re looking at it saying, ‘Hey, we need to give more ourselves and maybe we can get a little bit better.’”
With Tennessee precariously clinging to a 31-17 fourth-quarter lead, Michael Palardy’s 52-yard field-goal attempt hit the left hand of holder Tyler Drummer and fluttered less than 15 yards. Roman Buchanan picked it up and raced down the sideline with a blocker in front. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound Miller managed to chase down the 6-2, 200-pound safety.
“I guess other guys can look at it and say, ‘He hustled,’ but that’s nothing we don’t learn every day,” he said. “Coach Jones comes in and he teaches us ‘63’ [three great efforts on a six-second play] effort and strain all the time.
“I could have took that play off on that field goal and let that guy run down the field, but he preaches it to us every day and that’s all we know at this point.”
The Jaguars pulled within a touchdown six plays later, but Miller’s second-down sack and third-down pressure with South Alabama 6 yards from the end zone helped the Vols escape.
Monday, Jones singled out Miller’s “outstanding” effort on the field-goal return.
“First of all, his peers see it, and they respect him greatly,” Jones said. “They see that, but also it’s an illustration that when you play hard, good things happen. I always say you make your own breaks, you make your own luck and if you play hard, if you run to the football, that ball all of the sudden just bounces up in your hands.”
In five games this season, Miller has 10 tackles and two sacks, though he registered only 46 tackles, nine for loss and three sacks in the first three years of his career.
“Corey Miller’s an individual who is playing at a very high level right now,” Jones said. “When I watch him from last year, he’s not even the same football player. He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and what I enjoy is you can see the confidence because it spills over into the way they practice and their practice habits.
“The individuals that have really continued to show great improvement, it stems on the practice field, and Corey Miller is one of those individuals who’s continuing to improve.”
The South Carolina native was a touted recruit when he signed with Tennessee in 2010. The nation’s No. 66 overall prospect arrived on campus just days before former coach Lane Kiffin bolted to Southern Cal the night before Miller’s first day of college classes.
For the most part, Miller has been unable to make the kind of impact his recruiting billing predicted, but the player who admitted he got emotional last month when he was in Neyland Stadium and realized he had only seven games left to play there is working to make the most of his final season both as a leader and as a player.
“He stays on us all the time, especially the seniors,” he said of Jones. “He tells us that this is our last year and we don’t have any tomorrows. He’s going to stress for us to be leaders on the team; he’s going to stress for the guys who aren’t seniors who are leaders to take their leading positions as well, because someone’s got to lead the way.
“He says the speed of the leaders is the speed of the pack.”
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...