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.
"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."