Editor's note: Third in an occasional series exploring the pros and cons of starting a true freshman at quarterback, and the experiences of the six freshmen who started for BYU.
PROVO — More than 20 years after becoming the first true freshman quarterback to start a game at BYU, Drew Miller is still proud of that distinction.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s super cool.”
Despite that badge of honor, Miller’s career at BYU was short-lived.
With the two quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart injured, he started one game, a 14-3 loss at UTEP, late in the 1997 season. Then he sat on the bench the rest of the campaign. In 1998, Miller saw little playing time as he nursed a shoulder injury and watched Kevin Feterik take over as the undisputed starter.
After the ’98 season, frustrated and disappointed, Miller transferred to Montana, where he enjoyed a spectacular career with the Grizzlies.
Miller was named the 1999 Big Sky Conference newcomer of the year and was a first team Division II All-American in 1999 and 2000. He threw for 7,211 yards and 52 touchdowns during his college career.
Many have wondered what might have been had he remained at BYU. Though his college career didn’t go as planned, he’s at peace with it.
Miller, who turned 40 this year, spent several years coaching high school football followed by stints as the receivers coach at Central Washington and Idaho State.
He and his wife Diana are parents of an 8-year-old daughter (Brooklyn) and a 6-year-old son (Talan), and he keeps busy coaching their games.
“I’m trying to spend as much time with my kids while they’re young,” he said.
These days, Miller is a stay-at-home dad. He also works as a personal quarterback trainer and a recruiting consultant in Washington. Miller is also pursuing a master’s degree and a teaching certificate.
“I’m finding ways to stay busy,” he said.
Does Miller ever think about how things might have played out had he not played so early in his BYU career?
“Obviously, in a perfect world, if I could rewrite it, I would have kept my redshirt and played a little bit as a redshirt freshman and started playing more and then been a two- or three-year starter and thrown for a ton of yards and had a great career,” Miller said. “That’s the ideal path for a quarterback. However, it didn’t go that way.
"I did some other cool stuff. I became the first-ever true freshman to start there. I played for some legendary coaches at ‘Quarterback U.’ I’m super proud of my experience I had there," he continued. "I made great friends. I wouldn’t do it any different. The experience I had there was incredible. It prepared me for Montana. It was all good. It certainly wasn’t perfect. It didn’t go the way that I wanted it to. But it was a great experience.”
Coming out of Lakes High in Lakewood, Washington, Miller was a two-time Washington State Player of the Year, having thrown for more than 9,000 yards. He was recruited by plenty of big-name schools around the country but chose to play at BYU in 1997, though he’s not a member of the LDS Church.
“The main thing was the quarterback tradition. It was hard to argue the kind of history BYU has had at the quarterback position,” he said. “It was a no-brainer as far as that goes. I really enjoyed the coaching staff and the support staff on my recruiting trip. I felt comfortable and I liked the offense.
"There were a lot of things that fit very well. It felt like the right fit. What was intriguing and appealing to me was the way they developed quarterbacks and the way the guys were staying and playing for three or four years and having long college careers.”
During his official BYU recruiting visit, he was hosted by fullback Kalani Sitake, who is now BYU’s head coach.
The Cougars were coming off a 14-1 season in 1996 with a victory in the Cotton Bowl and a No. 5 national ranking. Quarterback Steve Sarkisian’s graduation left a void that figured to be filled by either Feterik, a sophmore, or junior Paul Shoemaker.
“I didn’t really have plans of playing right away,” Miller said. “The plan going in was to redshirt. I went down to Provo a few weeks early (prior to fall camp). I tried to throw as much as I could with the guys. I learned as much as I could before camp started. I wanted to give it a shot and do the best I could.
"We talked about the fact Sark was graduating and there wasn’t going to be a clear starter and that there would be an open competition. Obviously, as a competitor, that’s what I had my eyes on. But that wasn’t something the coaches dangled like a carrot as an opportunity to start as a true freshman.”
To open the 1997 season, BYU was breaking in two inexperienced quarterbacks, Feterik and Shoemaker, and both experienced growing pains early on.
On Oct. 11, 1997, BYU was playing at Rice. Both Feterik and Shoemaker suffered injuries, with Feterik fracturing his ankle. On that night in Houston, Miller burned his redshirt late in the game.
“I remember coach (LaVell) Edwards coming over and telling me to warm up. That was it,” Miller remembered. “It was that quick and easy. The part that was hard about it was, it was game six or seven in the season. I missed out on a lot of playing opportunities earlier in the year. But that’s how it goes.”
On his first college play, Miller found himself on his own 2-yard line. Offensive coordinator Norm Chow called a running back screen but the running back ran the wrong way.
“When I came to find him, he wasn’t there. Next thing you know, I had guys on top of me, celebrating a safety,” Miller recalled, laughing. “It’s made a great story. It’s one of those things that it’s funny that it happened to me. You laugh it off now. I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of telling the story.”
The Cougars lost to the Owls, 27-14.
Miller made his home debut, off the bench, the following week against Hawaii. Then, the next week, BYU was tied, 3-3, at halftime at home against TCU.
Miller entered the game in the second half, replacing Shoemaker, and he led the Cougars on four second-half touchdown drives. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns, including two to current BYU quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick.
At the time, only two other true freshmen in BYU history had thrown a touchdown pass — Jim McMahon in 1977 and Feterik in 1996.
“I ended up getting a lot more playing time and I played very well. That was a great memory for me,” Miller said. “It was a lot of fun playing in Provo with the great fans and the great fan base. When that place gets rocking, it’s a lot of fun.”
On Nov. 2, BYU traveled to UTEP with a quarterback quandary. While Feterik was sidelined due to his ankle injury, Shoemaker was also battling an ankle injury and his status was unclear going into the game.
“I remember knowing that I would start early in the week but at the same time, it was trying to keep it under wraps so it wasn’t such a media thing,” Miller said. “I got a ton of reps with the first team that week and I felt super-prepared and ready. I was excited. I couldn’t wait. It was crazy. I had been redshirting a couple of weeks prior.”
In the press box prior to kickoff, there was speculation that Miller could start and make history. And that’s what happened as Miller ran onto the field on BYU’s opening possession.
Things looked promising at the outset as Miller completed a swing pass to fullback Dustin Johnson, who rumbled to the UTEP 37-yard line. The Cougars eventually booted a field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
No one could have imagined that would be BYU’s only score of the night in a 14-3 setback. The Miners ended the Cougars’ 138-game touchdown streak. It was the first time BYU had been held without a TD since 1986. The Cougars rushed for zero yards.
Miller completed 17 of 32 for 226 yards and suffered three interceptions — though he did have a 55-yard completion and a 44-yard completion.
It’s a memory he looks back on fondly.
“It was awesome. It was a great night. I would have loved to have gotten the win but I felt like I played well,” he said. “We got the ball into the red zone but we just couldn’t score. We missed field goals and we couldn’t get it in the end zone. But I remember moving the ball up and down the field. We couldn’t finish drives.
“I did something nobody had ever done before at BYU. I feel like I did my job that night,” he continued. “I wish I would have gotten us in the end zone and gotten a ‘W.’ But I feel like for my first college start, on the road, it wasn’t an easy place to play in the Sun Bowl. It was all positive, other than we didn’t win.”
When asked recently about Miller's first start, Chow couldn't recall many details.
“I would have said we never started a (true) freshman. Then you mentioned Drew Miller. It’s interesting," Chow said. “I really don’t remember much about that. I’ve coached in a lot of games ... We were forced to (start Miller due to injuries to other quarterbacks). Usually, a freshman would be a third or fourth quarterback. Drew was a talented young guy and his father was a coach. He’d been around football a long time.”
The next week, Feterik, whose ankle was heavily taped, returned and led BYU to a 49-39 win at home against Tulsa. The Cougars finished the season with losses to New Mexico and Utah.
“The UTEP game ended up being my only start,” Miller said. “I remember wondering why.”
As a sophomore in 1998, Miller, backing up Feterik, completed 23 of 45 passes for 332 yards with two interceptions and two touchdowns. Miller felt he should be given an opportunity to start again.
When the ’98 season ended, Miller sought and received a release from BYU.
The way the coaches handled his situation wasn’t the only factor that led him to transfer, Miller said.
“I’m a competitive person. I wanted to finish my career playing every down," Miller said. "I felt like my best opportunity to do that was going to be somewhere else. Obviously, the way it was handled, it was a tough situation. Having coached in college now, I understand how difficult all of that is.
"I get it a little bit more than I did at the time. It’s fair to say from my perspective, I felt like it wasn’t handled great at times. But I also understand that the coaches are in a hard position. It is what it is. The way things ended up working out it felt like it was time to explore something new and start fresh.”
Several schools expressed interest in accepting him as a transfer, including Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, Cal and Nevada.
But if he had transferred to another Division I school, he would have had to sit out for one season, as per NCAA rules.
So he chose to transfer to Division I-AA power Montana, where he could play right away.
“Having played and started and played well, I got that taste and it was hard for me to fathom sitting out in the middle of my career. That was part of what factored into my decision as well,” Miller said. “As far as Montana goes, it was a great fit offensively. We threw the heck out of the ball. We ran similar schemes out of different personnel. It fit me skill-set-wise.
"I ended up having a great experience there outside of football. Not being LDS, it was something I was also looking for a little bit, too, in my decision to leave. I was looking for a fresh start in the whole college experience. Montana was great.”
The way Miller sees it, he had tremendous experiences at both BYU and Montana.4 comments on this story
“Are you kidding me? I got to play for arguably one of the best Division I programs in the country. Then I got to play at arguably one of the best Division I-AA programs in the country,” he said. “I got to play in a national championship game at Montana. It worked out great. It all worked out for the best.
"I’ve always said that I have no hard feelings and I don’t. I root for those guys down there at BYU. A lot of them on that staff are my former teammates. I root for them every week when they’re playing. I still feel proud to have played there. It’s fun to think back on it. Great times, great memories. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.”