Ashton Miller can’t help himself.
As he lays his hand on the football before the start of each play, the Eastern Washington center indulges in a bit of guesswork.
He surveys the defenders lined across from him, trying to forecast their next move while trying to stay a move ahead.
“Hopefully, I’m right most of the time,” said Miller, a bit too modest for someone whose every guess is educated: With a bachelor’s degree and a 3.67 grade-point average, he’ll graduate next spring with a master’s degree in business administration.
Eastern offensive line coach Aaron Best argues that football IQ comes at a premium on the offensive line. Multiple defensive fronts, multiple coverages and blitzes confront Miller and his linemates on every play.
“You can’t get away without football knowledge, and Ashton’s pretty good,” Best said. “But when he got here, he wasn’t very good.”
Miller’s football career has been a study in transition. When he arrived in Cheney in 2009, Miller was a 230-pound defensive end who according to Best “didn’t have a sense of what it took to succeed at the college level.”
Even as a redshirt scout player, Miller was asked to do more than he was accustomed to at Evergreen High in Vancouver.
“I don’t know who he disliked more, (defensive line) Coach Sawyer or myself,” Best said.
What Miller liked was the aggression of the defensive end position, even as Best thought “in the back of my mind, that this was the guy who could and would” replace Chris Powers at center.
Miller worked hard that winter, adding 25 pounds and still expecting to play defensive end, only to hear the dreaded word: “Tweener.”
He wasn’t fast enough to play end, and the Eagles were deep in the interior line. Told that he would see the field sooner on offense, Miller backed up Powers and even roomed with him on road trips during the championship season in 2010.
Miller had played center in high school, but had plenty to learn.
“He was a big role model,” Miller said. “I got to see the thought process that goes into the position.”
Then the coaches had second thoughts. Miller practiced at guard for most of fall camp in 2011, then was lost for the season with an Achilles injury.
“It was a tough injury, and I was kind of down on myself,” said Miller, one of several offensive linemen sidelined that season. “But once you realize that there’s nothing you can do I just tried to help the younger guys as much as I could.”
The injuries gave new players a chance to fill in at new positions, and gave the coaches a chance to reassess the entire unit and “find our way to play the best five guys,” Best said. “And that included Ashton.”
As a full-time starter in 2012, Miller helped the Eagles to an 11-3 season and a Big Sky Conference championship, all the while adjusting to a two-quarterback system that included Kyle Padron and Vernon Adams.
“It was a fun season, and I was excited to be back on the field and play, but not as good as we wanted it to be,” said Miller, who now weighs in at 300 pounds.
This season got better even before it began when Miller was voted to be a team captain.
“It kind of was a surprise,” Miller said. “On the field I know that I need to be a leader, but I’m not very vocal.”
True enough. Two hours before practice, Miller walks out of the Eagles lockerroom, carrying a gallon of water, a sandwich and a friendly, gap-toothed smile.
“That’s not my style to yell,” Miller said. “I’ll take a guy to the side and help him if he needs help. I know in my mind that I need to be there for my team.”
Still, according to Best, Miller is “surly enough” on the field to get people’s attention.
“He’s grown infinitely since he arrived here,” Best said of Miller, who has 25 career starts entering Saturday’s game at North Dakota.
And after he earns his master’s degree in the spring?
“To be honest, I have no idea,” Miller said.