Jordan Miller was eating dinner with his girlfriend the other day when Budda Baker, his former Washington Huskies teammate, texted with an important question.
Baker, the two-time all-Pac-12 safety from Bellevue, is busy preparing for this month’s NFL draft, in which he is projected as a potential first-round pick. He is one of three ex-Huskies defensive backs — Kevin King and Sidney Jones complete the triumvirate — who could be selected on the draft’s first day. All three are fiercely proud of the legacy they established in UW’s defensive backs room.
So, as the Huskies began practicing this spring, Baker couldn’t quite stay away.
“Budda just texted me the other day,” Miller said, “asking what technique I’m playing and how I’m doing. I swear to God. I was at dinner with my girlfriend, and I was like, ‘Sorry, I gotta get this. Gotta text him back and tell him what’s going on.’ ”
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The Huskies won the Pac-12 last season, made the College Football Playoff and return several key players from a team that ranked eighth nationally in scoring defense and fourth in yards per play allowed. Yet the departures of Baker, King and Jones have created a void that must be filled by players with far less experience than that heralded trio.
Miller, a junior from Oceanside, California, seems first in line to assume one of the two vacant starting cornerback spots. He is the most experienced corner on the roster and played in every game the past two seasons, though most of those snaps came on special teams.
He saw some time at corner, too, though mostly in blowouts. Jones and King were so good that it simply didn’t make sense to play anyone else in a game that hadn’t yet been decided. So Miller waited, taking advantage of the few opportunities he got — he has two career interceptions, one each in 2015 and 2016, and led the team in interceptions during fall camp last season — with the knowledge that his time was coming.
At 6-foot-1 and 183 pounds, Miller might be the best athlete on the roster: he was clocked at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at this year’s Husky Combine event, and posted the top vertical and broad jump on the team.
“It’s been hard, but it’s been good to see guys in front of me making plays all the time,” Miller said. “I know the standard at this school and in our room. These two years, it’s been hard, but it’s been fun. I’ve still got my time to play, and now it’s time to really turn it up and be the guy.”
So far, Miller has spent each 11-on-11 session at cornerback with the first-team defense. The back end of UW’s secondary is occupied by returning starters Taylor Rapp and Jojo McIntosh, though senior Ezekiel Turner often plays safety with Rapp at the nickel spot.
The cornerback position opposite Miller has been filled so far by Byron Murphy, a touted recruit from Scottsdale, Arizona, who redshirted last season but is already drawing rave reviews from teammates and coaches this spring. He intercepted two passes during Friday’s practice alone, further evidence of what defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake says he saw from Murphy as a two-way standout at Saguaro High School.
“I think I said he had the best hands I’d seen coming out of high school, and I truly still believe that,” Lake said. “His high school tape was really unbelievable, his ball skills, and he’s playing more now with the first-team defense and it’s coming true right now.”
There will be plenty of competition in UW’s secondary this spring — and, Lake noted, three talented freshmen defensive backs will arrive in the fall. Redshirt freshmen Kentrell Love and Isaiah Gilchrist have received second-team reps at corner and safety, respectively. Third-year sophomore Austin Joyner has been limited by injury so far, but should be a factor once healthy. Converted tailback Jomon Dotson is still learning the defensive playbook.
“We had great guys leave last year,” Miller said, “but I want to come in and try to make a name for myself, and other guys (want to) try to make a name for themselves and say that. Death Row is still Death Row.”