When Chris Miller was playing in traveling soccer leagues growing up in the northern suburbs, the last thing he envisioned was a professional football career.
But that may be just what happens.
Miller, a Carmel graduate, is among the top collegiate punters in the nation.
"That's first where I developed my kicking ability," said Miller, now a junior at Ball State. "It definitely helped mold me into being a punter."
As much success has Miller has already enjoyed, he's far from satisfied, as he learned very early in his career that punting is a task that can't truly be perfected.
"You can never kick the ball too high or too far," said Miller. "There's always something to get better at and that's what I work on every game."
Judging by Miller's numbers thus far in his Ball State career, there's not a whole lot of room for improvement. After redshirting his first year in 2004, Miller has thrived, averaging 43.8 yards per punt in 2005, increasing that number to 46.3 last season and is averaging 46.2 yards in 50 punts this year.
He led the Mid-American Conference in punting in 2005 and 2006 and was first-team all-conference after both seasons. His average last year ranked second in the nation and he's led the country in punting average for much of this year. He already has placed 21 kicks inside the 20 after doing so only 20 times in each of his first two seasons.
Prior to this season, Miller was selected as the second-best punter in the nation by The Sporting News, was a Street & Smith's Preseason All-American and an Athlon Magazine Preseason All-America Second-Team choice. And last week, he was named as one of the 10 finalists for the Ray Guy Award, which is presented annually to college football's top punter.
Like so many athletes before him, Miller's career trajectory traces its existence to an injury. Former teammate Jack Simmons, now a tight end at Minnesota, got hurt midway through the 2002 season, which opened the door for Miller to take over. What was supposed to be a one-game fill-in job turned into a stranglehold on the position over the next year-and-a-half despite less-than-stellar form.
"In high school I really didn't have any technique," said Miller. "My senior year I started going to some kicking camps and that really gave me the confidence and motivation to know that I could excel."
Unlike many kickers and punters, Miller sees himself as a football player, not just a special teams specialist. He's listed at 6 feet, 2 inches and 205 pounds and doesn't shy away from tackling a returner if he has to. Miller caught 20 passes for 460 yards and eight touchdowns as a tight end his senior year at Carmel.
Perhaps his most cherished football memory involves the five-yard touchdown catch he made in the Corsairs' 54-26 victory over Bloomington in the Class 6A state title game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. When he returned to Champaign when Ball State played Illinois earlier this season, he averaged 43.6 yards in five punts, including three inside the 20.
"It was a five-yard 'out' pattern and I grabbed it right out of the defender's hands," Miller remembered. "It was a cool experience to play on the same field that we won a state championship on."
Since arriving at Ball State, Miller has worked hard to become much more of a punting technician. His inordinately strong right leg got him his start but he was quick to realize that simply booming the ball as far as he possibly can is rarely the way he can best help his team.
"My biggest job is to help the team out with field position," he said. "If you can pin an opposing team inside its own 10-yard line it really gives your defense a comfort level knowing that the offense has to go 90 yards to score a touchdown."
Adding to his technical development, Miller continually focuses on increasing his hang time and he's become much more adept at controlling the ball's trajectory. Depending on the field position, he kicks the ball with as little as 60 percent of a full swing. He can also affect where the ball goes and how it lands by the way he holds it in his hands before launching.
Miller makes no bones about his desire to punt in the NFL after leaving Ball State in 2008, but knows it's often a long road to travel to become established. College punters rarely get drafted and almost always have to beat out a veteran to stick on a roster. Once there, especially early in one's career, it's essential to take complete advantage of the opportunity because there's always a long line of punters poised to step in.
"The top team I'd like to play for is the Bears," says Miller. "But my main goal is to punt in the NFL. You just have to have such a good work ethic."
The necessary work ethic and other tricks of the trade are items he has ocasionally spoken about with current Bears punter Brad Maynard, who was a four-time All-MAC selection at Ball State from 1993-96.
One thing that is sure to come up in any future discussions between the two is Bears return man Devin Hester. Maynard is lucky enough to not have to kick to Hester on Sundays and, like all punters, Miller has developed his own philosophy when it comes to controlling dangerous return men.
"I don't see why punters don't just kick it out of bounds," Miller said. "You can angle punts toward the sideline but you definitely don't want to out-kick the coverage like I've seen a few times."
Iowa redshirt freshman punter Ryan Donahue (St. Rita) has had his right leg receive quite a workout in his first season. Through the Hawkeyes' first 10 games, he has punted a league-high 73 times for 3,005 yards, an average of 41.2 per kick, which ranks him fourth in the Big Ten and tops among the conference's three freshman punters. He also has 22 punts inside the 20.
He enjoyed perhaps his best game of the season in Iowa's 34-27 overtime win over Michigan State and was named the Big Ten special teams player of the week for his effort. In that outing, he averaged 51.6 yards on eight punts, including a career-long 82-yarder, which ranks as the second-longest punt in school history. Three other punts also sailed more than 50 yards vs. the Spartans.
Donahue was also solid in Iowa's come-from-behind win at Northwestern Saturday, averaging 43.6 yards on 10 punts. One of the kicks went for 76 yards and three landed inside the Wildcats' 20-yard line, including one that pinned Northwestern at their own 2-yard line in the second quarter.
Carthage College junior quarterback Brennan O'Boyle (Brother Rice) was named the CCIW offensive player of the week on Sunday for his role in the Big Red's 35-27 road upset of Wheaton College on Saturday. The Thunder (8-1, 5-1 in conference) had entered the game ranked No. 4 nationally. O'Boyle was 28-for-44 for 228 yards and three touchdowns and rushed 19 times for 78 yards.
For the season, O'Boyle has started four of the seven games in which he's appeared, going 80-126 (63.5 percent) for 814 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. He missed two games in September due to injury.
The top receiver for Carthage (7-2, 4-2 in conference) on the year is sophomore Jeff Koeneman (Fremd), who has 62 catches for 691 yards and nine touchdowns. On Saturday, he reeled in a season-high 11 passes for 70 yards and had his only two-touchdown game of the season.
The special teams player of the week honors on Sunday went to North Central senior kicker Ben Aguilar (Benet). In North Central's 23-7 win over Illinois Wesleyan on Saturday Aguilar tied a school record with three field goals, connecting from 40 (career-long), 30 and 27 yards. The three field goals gave him 12 on the year, which broke the single-season school record.
Western Michigan sophomore outside hitter Katie Eberling (Stagg) is one of the main reasons the Broncos (19-9, 10-4 in conference) are on the brink of claiming their first Mid-American Conference West division title since 2000.
She was named the MAC West player of the week last Monday and followed up with two solid performances over the weekend (a combined 28 kills, 15 digs) in a loss to second-place Central Michigan and a three-game sweep over Eastern Michigan. Heading into this weekend's final two regular season matches, Eberling is third on the team in both kills (298) and digs (308) and has 10 double-doubles in kills and digs.
During the week's action before winning the weekly conference award, Eberling recorded her first career 20-20 match (21 kills, 24 digs) at Northern Illinois on October 25 and had her ninth double-double of the season (15 kills, 12 digs) in a home win over Bowling Green two nights later. She also had a career-high five blocks against BGSU.
Eberling had a successful first collegiate season in 2006 as well. She started all 36 of WMU's matches and played in every game during the campaign and was named to the conference's All-Freshman Team. She ended her freshman year second on the team with 460 kills and was third with 355 digs.
Illinois outside hitter Laura DeBruler (Downers Grove North) continues her outstanding freshman season for the Fighting Illini, receiving Big Ten player of the week honors last Monday for the second time this season. It marks the first time an Illinois volleyball player has earned the award twice in the same year since 1992.
She has led the squad in kills and kills per game throughout the season and currently holds sizable leads in both categories with 485 kills and 5.0 kills per game. She turned in two solid matches over the weekend for Illinois (15-9, 7-7 in conference), recording 22 kills in Friday night's four-game loss to Northwestern and a career-high 31 kills in Saturday night's win over Michigan State.
DeBruler now has 14 matches with at least 20 kills this season, including 10 of the last 11 matches. Also, her 4.91 kills per game before last week's action was the second-highest mark in the nation for a freshman.
During the '07 campaign, he helped lead Chivas to the best record in the Western Conference (15-7-8) and led the league with 13 shutouts. That amount is the second-highest all-time tally in league history, trailing only Tony Meola's 16 in 2000. He also tied for the second-most wins (14) in the league this season and was second in goals against average (0.93), which was the fourth best mark in league history.
Chivas, however, bowed out in the first round of the MLS playoffs over the weekend. In the series, Guzan only yielded a single goal, in the first match on October 27, but his squad failed to score in either game.
With significant help from two local products, the Elmhurst College men's soccer team advanced to its first-ever appearance in the CCIW tournament title match Saturday. The Bluejays (14-5-2) dropped the match 3-0 to Wheaton but despite the loss the season brought about a remarkable turnaround from 2006 when the program was 3-14-2.
Sophomore forward Jake Pahr (Cary-Grove) started 20 of 21 matches this year and finished second on the team and in the conference behind teammate Jon Brehm with 13 goals (Brehm had 14) and tied for second with Brehm in the CCIW with eight assists. He ranked third on the team in scoring last year with 10 points on five goals. He also was a two-time 2007 CCIW Player of the Week this season, the last occasion coming last Monday.
Senior goaltender Britt Blackwell (Lake Zurich) also had an outstanding season for the Bluejays.
Blackwell split time in goal as a freshman and moved into the starting lineup for good as a sophomore in 2005. His goals-against average decreased significantly this year, to a league-low 0.77 prior to the conference title match, after having marks of 1.40 two years ago and 1.47 in 2006.
Also in men's soccer, Johns Hopkins junior midfielder Nick Gauna (Evanston) was named second-team All-Centennial Conference last Thursday. The No. 18 Blue Jays won their third conference tournament title in four years Sunday at Franklin & Marshall with a 4-1 win over Gettysburg after defeating Muhlenberg, 2-1, in one of Saturday's semifinals.
Gauna pitched in over the weekend by tying the Blue Jays' semifinal game at 1-1 late in the first half with a header off a corner kick.
Gauna, who was a first-team all-conference pick last year as a sophomore, leads the team and the conference with eight assists and has moved into a tie for fourth-place on the school's all-time assists chart with 22. He also is tied for second on the team with 30 points (11 goals, 8 assists).
Next up for Johns Hopkins will be its appearance in the NCAA Tournament.