Wide receiver Andre Miller catches a pass during University of Maine football practice Thursday in Orono. Portland Press Herald photo by Derek Davis

ORONO — Andre Miller is exactly where he’s supposed to be. Alfond Stadium at the University of Maine is where Miller worked on developing his football skills on his own time, running routes with Jake Jarvis, his quarterback at Old Town High School. UMaine is a seven minute drive from Miller’s childhood home in Old Town. It’s where Miller is comfortable.

After a freshman season playing football at nearby Husson Unoversity in Bangor and a sophomore year at Eastern Maine Community College, the University of Maine could have felt like a world away for Miller. He never let that distance grow.

“It just seemed right to come here and play,” Miller said after finishing the Black Bears first practice of the season shortly after noon Thursday.

Last season, Miller’s first at Maine, he developed into a receiving threat slowly, until his breakout game in the Black Bears’ Football Championship Subdivision semifinal loss at Eastern Washington. In that game, Miller caught a career-high nine passes for 129 yards and a 47-yard touchdown.

Miller finished his first season at Maine with 16 catches for 287 yards and that touchdown at Eastern Washington. Expectations are high for the Black Bears all-around in 2019, and quarterback Chris Ferguson, whose job it will be to get the ball into Miller’s hands, set the bar high for his local target.

Wide receiver Andre Miller goes through a drill during University of Maine football practice Thursday in Orono. Portland Press Herald photo by Derek Davis

“All-conference, man,” Ferguson said. “We’re expecting him to emerge as a dominant player in this league. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be.”

Two of Maine’s top pass catchers from last season graduated. Wideout Micah Wright is in camp with the New Orleans Saints, and tight end Drew Belcher is with the Arizona Cardinals. Combined, Wright and Belcher caught 93 passes for 896 yards and seven touchdowns last season. There’s catches to be had. Miller, his coaches and his teammates are confident Miller can become a big part of Maine’s offense.

“He’s a big receiver, but people sleep on his speed,” senior receiver Jaquan Blair said of Miller. “He’s a great competitor, and that’s what we need here. We don’t get what we deserve sometimes. We’ve got to go out there and take it. He’s the perfect mold of that.”

As a senior at Old Town in the fall of 2015, Miller emerged as one of the top high school football players in the state, catching 49 passes for 1,068 yards and 17 touchdowns. Old Town went undefeated in the regular season and reached the Class C North championship game, the best season in more than a decade for the Coyotes.

At the 2016 Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl, the annual all-star game featuring recently graduated seniors, Miller introduced himself to Maine football fans who don’t pay attention to anything north of Cumberland County. Miller was the best player on the field, catching seven passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns to lead the East to a 58-52 win.

Miller was coming off his sophomore season at Old Town when Lance Cowan became the Coyotes head coach. Cowan watched film of Old Town’s previous season, and a Miller play caught his eye. It was a simple 12-yard counter run, but Cowan saw it and knew he was going to coach a special player.

“Just the way he moved. I looked at the other coaching staff and said ‘We’ve got to get this guy the ball as much as possible,'” Cowan said.

Maine and Miller had a mutual interest, but Miller’s SAT score and grades made him a non-qualifier in the eyes of the NCAA. That meant Miller had to go someplace else and get his grades up before he could be a Black Bear. First, he enrolled at Husson, where he played football and had 13 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. In the fall of 2017, Miller enrolled at Eastern Maine Community College, where he focused on academics.

“I’m the first person going through it in my family, so I’m learning the rules as I go,” Miller, who is studying kinesiology and physical education, said.

While out of football in 2017, Miller worked out, often alone, at the Alfond Stadium. Charlton and the other Maine coaches noticed. When Miller was admitted into Maine for the fall of 2018, there was a walk-on spot waiting for him on the football team.

“When he was at community college, we would see him out here doing stuff on his own. I love Dre. He’s a tremendous worker and he’s a great player,” Charlton said.

That hard work is what has set Miller apart since high school, Cowan said. At Old Town, Miller could have been content to run past overmatched defensive backs, or simply overpower smaller defenders. He didn’t, Cowan said, because he knew that wouldn’t last forever.

“Everybody’s going to find a team that can cover them,” Cowan said. “Obviously, he’s got great hands.He’s always worked on his route running. He dedicated himself to the little things. Making the right cuts. Running sharp routes.”

Miller’s talent and grasp of the offense got in sync in Maine’s eighth game of the 2018 season, a 28-9 Colonial Athletic Association win over Albany. Miller had three receptions, his first catches of the season, for 64 yards.

“It was a little bit of a challenge, especially in our offense. There’s a lot of things you need to understand and get acclimated to. We want to put them in the best position they can be in, so that takes a little bit of time,” Charlton said. “When we felt like Dre was in the best position to succeed, that’s when he started playing. Football’s a hard game to play if you don’t know what you’re doing. Once you do, the rest is him. It’s all him.”

Added Miller: “Week in, week out, every opponent we got, the plays just started to get more clear in my head. At first it was kind of fuzzy. You’re going out and playing and you’re guessing. Do I have this? Do I have that? You’re not going to play very well like that.”

At 6-foot-2, 215-pounds, Miller is the Black Bears biggest receiver. He and Blair constantly debate which of them has the best hands, and senior Earnest Edwards, who led the team last season with 53 catches for 839 yards and 10 touchdowns, would probably have something to add to that discussion. What’s not up for debate is the trust that’s developed between Miller and Ferguson.

The quarterback and Miller spent a lot of time getting to know each other in the offseason. They went to the movies, ate meals, and generally hung out. Ferguson described Miller as a funny kid who plays with a chip on his shoulder.

“He loves this school. He loves this state. It makes him work harder. He’s one of the hardest working dudes on this team,” Ferguson said. “The physical was there. He just had to figure the plays out and (the game) mentally.”

The loss on the blood-red turf at Eastern Washington was the end of the Black Bears’ 2018 season, but it was a preview of Miller’s potential. His touchdown came with 7:02 left in the third quarter. With Maine facing first down and 10 at the Eastern Washington 47, Miller lined up on the right side of the formation and ran a 10-yard slant.

As Maine’s biggest receiver, opponents had begun playing Miller on the outside when he lined up wide, to try to take away the fade route. That’s what Eastern Washington did on this play. On the snap, Miller made a fake to the outside, then cut hard back inside for the slant. Ferguson hit him in stride, and Miller ran. He broke a tackle at the 15, then pushed past a defender at the goal line for the touchdown.

“I noticed it was press coverage, so I tried to snap it off quick because I knew Ferg was getting a little bit of pressure. I tried to make a play,” Miller said. “I’m coming in the guy nobody really knows who I am.”

Ferguson estimated the Black Bears called that play for Miller five times in that game. While the Eagles focused on Edwards, Blair, Wright and Belcher, Miller knew how to get open.

“It was a play we set up in practice for him. He was running it well. He’s obviously a big guy, so I’ve got a big window to throw to. Just to see him do that and take that step, coming into spring ball now in camp, it was huge for him,” Ferguson said.

Added Blair: “He’s been doing it in practice. We all knew it. He was making plays all the way through. We always knew he had it. It was just about bringing it out when the lights were on.”

The lights will be on for Maine’s season opener, a Friday night game at Alfond Stadium on August 30 against Sacred Heart. Now, Miller will not be the unknown receiver from nearby Old Town. He’ll be a guy opposing defenses will try to shut down. Miller is ready for the challenge.

“Day in, day out, just get better,” Miller said. “Right now, we’re only focused on winning the opener.”


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