No University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football player is more eager for practice to start than linebacker Gunner Miller.
The former four-year starter at East Ridge High School not only missed the last three games of 2010, his redshirt freshman season, with a pinched nerve in his left shoulder, but the injury persisted in the offseason and kept him out of contact situations during spring practice, as well.
"I got released this summer by the doctor," the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Miller said. "and actually [getting hurt] might have been a good thing because I've worked harder since I got hurt than I ever have in my life to get back. I feel great right now."
The nerve problem began as a stinger after a hard hit against Elon and "it pretty much just shut my whole arm down," Miller said. For several weeks that limited the kinds of upper-body work he could do in the weight room - no small thing for someone like Miller that would probably live in there if given the opportunity.
Strength coach Scott Brincks said he hasn't seen too many players come through the program with the same level of weight-room dedication that Miller possesses. Two that he mentioned were linebackers Josh Cain and Sheldon Green, who played from 1999-2002.
Cain was a two-time All-American whose 192 tackles in 2002 remains UTC's single-season record.
"They were very powerful, very strong kids, a lot like Gunner," Brincks said. "I think they maybe had a little more natural ability than Gunner does, but Gunner does it by just working his tail off."
Miller made his first career start at Western Carolina in the fourth game of the season and made nine tackles, including four for-loss. He had nine tackles again the following week and looked like a mainstay in the lineup.
Because it has been so long since he played in a game, Miller said he doesn't really feel like he's played much. At the same time, he's been with the team since the summer before he started school at UTC.
"I've been here for a long time. I even came over my freshman summer, so I've been here for three years and I feel like one of the veterans on the team," he said. "But I feel like I lack a little bit of experience on the field being that I only played in [eight] games. I do feel a lot more confident, since I did play in those games, in my abilities."
The Mocs begin preseason practice Thursday afternoon at Scrappy Moore Field.