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Clover High football is mired in a rut. The Blue Eagles are off to an 0-4 start while being outscored 186-26, and coach John Devine resigned Tuesday.
But former Blue Eagles quarterback Aaron Miller is a reminder of happier days in Clover football. He has helped The Citadel to a 3-0 record, highlighted by wins against perennial Football Championship Series powers Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.
After going 12-22 the previous three seasons, The Citadel didn’t get much respect in preseason polls, with Southern Conference coaches predicting an eighth-place finish. But the team’s prolific offense has lifted it to heights league coaches never would’ve imagined, including a No. 10 national ranking in the most recent FCS poll.
The Citadel’s triple-option attack focuses on relentlessly pounding the football, which opens the passing game for Miller, a backup quarterback who is second on the team in total yards per game. He has completed nine of 13 passes for 206 yards.
Coach Kevin Higgins’ team is gaining 6.3 yards per carry – and 24 yards per pass completion. That effective balance has helped The Citadel average 466 yards of offense and 41 points through three games.
The Citadel will need all of that offensive production Saturday. The Bulldogs will face their highest-profile test of the year when they travel to Raleigh to play the N.C. State Wolfpack, a game that’s suddenly garnering much more attention than normal.
Getting a win at Carter-Finley Stadium is a big task; the Citadel is 0-27 all-time against the ACC. But after beating two ranked FCS teams in the same season for the first time in 21 years, Miller doesn’t see why the Bulldogs couldn’t claim an even bigger scalp in the Wolfpack.
“As long as we execute and give our best effort, it gives us the ability to compete with other teams,” Miller said Wednesday evening after practice. “Hopefully, if we bring our best game, good things can happen.”
High school star
While Miller has excelled throwing the ball, his foundation is firmly grounded in the run game, a result of an excellent career at Clover from 2007 to 2010. Miller was a freshman called up to the varsity midway through the 2007 season when Jet Turner’s Blue Eagles marched to the Division II-AAAA state championship, riding the old wing-T offense.
Clover beat Laurens and Greenwood during the first two rounds, before holding off Ridge View 20-10 and advancing to the state championship game at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Blue Eagles met Beaufort in the final and they prevailed 23-14, winning the school’s first football state title.
Miller led the Blue Eagles to a combined 39-13 record and they never won less than eight games in a season, while Miller himself averaged 1,000 yards rushing and 600 yards passing. He earned all-region honors twice and eventually decided to play football and study at The Citadel.
Turner, who coaches at Broome High, remembered a number of games when Miller directly impacted the outcome, none more than Clover’s comeback win against Fort Walton Beach (Fla.) in 2010, Miller’s two-point conversion with 17 seconds left capped a 15-point turnaround in the fourth quarter.
“When you talk about kids taking over a ballgame,” Turner said Thursday afternoon, “that one always stood out among many. He just willed us to win, and there were many times he did that.”
Miller said one characteristic above all strengthened his Clover teams then and his Citadel squad now: “The biggest issue is trust.”
During Turner’s years, Clover thrived with the wing-T offense, and if there’s one thing that formation depends on, it’s having faith in teammates.
“You have to trust your teammates to make those blocks, to make those reads, pitches,” Miller said about the offensive scheme. “It’s based on trust.”
Perhaps it was symbolic when the Blue Eagles switched offenses under Devine, who replaced Turner before the 2011 season. The Blue Eagles won two of their 11 games last year.
There was the hazing incident that shocked the school and the community. Clover’s administration expelled 10 players from the varsity team midway through last season after three athletes reported they were assaulted. Authorities later found no evidence of a crime and did not file charges.
Clover not only lost a large chunk of its football program after the disastrous 2011 campaign, its players lost trust in each other. The first part of a team’s athletic success is good chemistry. That might not be entirely possible at Clover, where a gloomy detachment has settled over S.C. 55.
The community was affected too. Parents lost faith in school leaders and football coaches. That hurt the Blue Eagles in immeasurable ways, including an atypically low turnout for the team this year, which in turn led to a winless as the Blue Eagles were crushed by South Florence, Forestview, Spring Lake and Boiling Springs. Clover was off last week, offering rare respite in a season where winning a single game could prove elusive.
“I think over the last 15 years or so, Clover football has been a big outlet for this small town,” said Clover Touchdown Club president Jamie McMackin. “I think the enthusiasm is still there. It’s just a hard time.”
A point of pride
Clover may have to look elsewhere for inspiration, and The Citadel and Miller are a perfect starting point. Even over the phone he exudes confidence and self-belief, especially when he mentions his plans to graduate from school in three years so that he can begin work on a Masters in business administration. The self-assurance comes from being part of a team that’s in for the long haul together, a patchwork of personalities stitched together with one common thread: trust.
“I feel like they’ve just got to come together with all the adversity they may go through with losing a coach and everything that they’ve been through,” he said, weighing his words. “When I was there, the team really bonded well. I feel like the boys need to take it upon themselves to come together, because that’s what we do here (at the Citadel). We treat everybody like they’re brothers. We push each other hard and we always lean on each other.”
Miller embodies Clover’s sunny past, but he could also represent the school and community’s future. The Blue Eagles and the town need something positive to cheer. They could start by rooting for one of their own Saturday.
“You look at a young man who set his sights on playing at the next level and did everything the right way,” said Turner.
“In the classroom he worked hard and is a quality kid, very humble. I definitely think Aaron is huge for the Clover community. He’s what’s right with Clover football.”