CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Virginia's Heath Miller had more catches, receiving yards and touchdowns than the University of Miami's Kellen Winslow Jr. last season. Not surprisingly, Miller did it much more quietly than Winslow, the outspoken consensus all-American who was the Cleveland Browns' first-round draft choice in April.
"I kind of like to just go about my business, take care of my job and divert all the attention to my team," Miller said.
"Heath Miller is the best tight end in the country -- hands down," Cavaliers guard Elton Brown said. "Double team him, and he'll catch the ball. Triple team him, and he'll catch the ball."
(Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
Avoiding the spotlight will be more difficult this season for the soft-spoken Miller, who set ACC records for tight ends with 70 receptions for 835 yards in 2003. Miller's six touchdown catches were five more than Winslow had last season, and he led Division I-A tight ends in receptions and receiving yards. With his first catch this season, Miller will break the Virginia record for catches by a tight end; he enters his junior season tied with Bruce McGonnigal at 103.
Miller's production hasn't gone unnoticed. The Swords Creek, Va., native enters this season as a preseason all-American and the leading hopeful for the John Mackey Award, which honors the nation's top tight end. And, like Winslow, Miller could be a first-round choice in next spring's NFL draft, if he decides to leave Virginia after his junior season.
"Heath Miller is the best tight end in the country -- hands down," Cavaliers guard Elton Brown said during last month's ACC preseason news conference. "Double team him, and he'll catch the ball. Triple team him, and he'll catch the ball. Throw the ball up, and he'll catch the ball. People see that, but behind the scenes, he's a great run blocker, too."
Miller, 6 feet 5 and 255 pounds, knows it will be difficult to duplicate the success of his sophomore season. He caught five or more passes in six games, including a career-high 13 receptions for 145 yards in the Cavaliers' 35-21 victory over Virginia Tech. Last year, Miller more than doubled his production from his freshman season in 2002, in which he caught 33 passes and scored a touchdown in each of his first five college games.
"Statistically, it's going to be pretty hard to do better than last year," Miller said.
But Virginia might need him to. The Cavaliers lost quarterback Matt Schaub, their starter in each of the past three seasons, and starting wide receivers Ottowa Anderson and Ryan Sawyer (Anderson is academically ineligible, and Sawyer graduated). Michael McGrew, the expected starter at split end, missed all of last season because of a broken leg. The team's other top returning wide receivers -- freshman Emmanuel Byers and sophomores Fontel Mines and Deyon Williams -- combined to catch only 14 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns last season.
Virginia Coach Al Groh said it would be difficult to ask Miller to carry more of a load.
"It would be pretty tough for Heath to play an even bigger role," Groh said. "But the tight end is always going to play a big role in this system. It's one of the premier positions in this offense. He also happens to be a premier talent. We're going to find as many ways as possible to get him the ball."
Groh spent 13 seasons as an assistant and head coach in the NFL before returning to coach his alma mater. During his pro career, Groh worked with some of the NFL's best tight ends -- Mark Bavaro of the New York Giants, Ben Coates of the New England Patriots and Anthony Becht of the New York Jets. Groh said Miller has the potential to flourish in the NFL, too.
"This is a really good player," Groh said. "The ball just sticks on his hands. Certain players just have a knack for making that happen, and Heath is one of them."