About the only thing we know about Zach Miller is that he won’t give up.
“I’m not there yet,” said the Bears tight end, who has not played in an NFL regular-season games since Week 6 of the 2011 season because of season-ending injuries to his shoulder, calf and foot. “I guess it’s just how I am mentally —something happens, you regroup, grind through it and get back to where you were [before].
“I’ve had some unfortunate things happen. But I’ve always been able to get back. That’s how I know how the [recovery] process goes. I guess it’s just the way I am.”
Miller’s misfortune couldn’t have been much more frustrating last season. He had the game every roster hopeful dreams of in the preseason opener against the Eagles —six receptions for 68 yards and two touchdowns, including one from Jay Cutler with the first-team offense.
And then he was gone. On his fifth play of the following game against the Jaguars, he suffered a Lisfranc injury to his foot and was out for the season — again.
“I knew when it happened that it popped,” Miller said. “We were running a draw play and I was up on the safety and blocked him and put my foot down and it just snapped on me. I was just disappointed, because I was ready to play.”
Despite the recurring injuries, new Bears general manager Ryan Pace saw enough promise in Millerto sign him to a one-year contract in February and give it another shot. A former quarterback with 26 passing touchdowns and 50 rushing touchdowns at Nebraska-Omaha, Miller is an intriguing offensive prospect at tight end. In 33 games with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2009-11, Miller caught 45 passes for 470 yards (10.4 yards per catch) and four touchdowns.
But he’ll have to prove he can block effectively in Adam Gase’s offense — and more than just a downfield tight end who can throw an occasional block every now and then. He’s going to have to be good at it.
“We’re excited with what he can bring to this offense with his skill-set,” said tight ends coach Frank Smith, a former left guard for Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (Ohio) whose expertise is blocking.
“The interesting thing I’ve seen in this camp is his blocking and pass protection has gotten a lot better. I can see the route running. Being able to do everything is equally important. We’re really excited with what he’s going to do.”
Miller acknowledges the challenge —“I was a college quarterback my whole career. I had never had my hand on the ground,” he said. —but he is encouraged with the progress he’s made as a willing blocker under Smith’s tutelage.
“I feel so much more comfortable in the run game,” Miller said, “probably the best I’ve ever been in my career as far as knowing where to be, how to fit, footwork and hand placement. Frank’s been a huge help.
“My first couple of years in the league, it was like, ‘You’re going to be the move-around guy, run-around guy. Now I’m starting to develop where I’m not a liability in the run game. I can actually go out and hold my own.”
Miller said he is feeling no affects of the injury and is physically is where he was in last year’s preseason opener.
“I feel good. I haven’t had any setbacks,” Miller said. “The foot feels fine. I really don’t even go into practice having any worries. I don’t even really notice it — so for me it’s just getting back in football shape and getting my body ready to take that banging throughout the season. Everything’s been good so far.”
Miller is in a battle with Dante Rosario and Bear Pascoe, Chris Pantale, Blake Annen and Kevin Greene for roster spots behind Martellus Bennett. But no matter how well he does, he’ll still have to prove he can stay healthy.
“It hasn’t really been a mental challenge. I don’t dwell on it,” Miller said. “It’s just weird stuff just pops up. I had a shoulder [in 2011]. Then I tore my calf and partially tore my achilles in 2012. I had the Lisfranc thing.
“It’s not like I don’t take care of my body. It’s not stuff that I’m doing wrong. I stay in good shape. I eat well. I’m healthy and then these injuries pop up. It’s just timing and a little bit of bad luck. But that’s got to change at some point.”