NEWS

'Brit the Hit' makes big impact off field

John Supinie

Illinois senior middle linebacker Brit Miller has already left his mark on the football field. Now Miller, nicknamed "Brit the Hit'' by former teammate J Leman, is just as big a hit off the field.

"He's got quite a fan club here,'' said Jan Filicsky, a voluntary service specialist at the VA Illiana Health Care System in Danville. "We think Brit can tackle anything.''

That's becoming more evident with Miller, a Decatur Eisenhower High School graduate who moved from outside linebacker to the middle this season and leads the nation with 2.3 tackles for a loss per game.

But when the Illini host Minnesota in the homecoming game at Memorial Stadium Saturday, Miller already was a fan favorite at the VA hospital in Danville, the Cunningham Children's Home in Urbana, the Disabled American Veterans chapter in Decatur and local elementary schools as much for time as his tackling.

Miller, who will graduate with degrees in history and speech communications 3 1/2 years in December, averages four to six hours of community service a week. After graduating, he plans to get a teaching certificate and coach at the high school level.

"Sometimes we don't do much except go and hang out,'' Miller said. "It's just being ourselves and talking to people. That's the great thing about community service. It can be so simple sometimes. We're in a good position to do it. I don't see why people don't take on community service more.''

But for every stop to visit elementary school children, there's also the other side -- a youngster in restraints at a home for trouble children or a war veteran with a mangled body or a shattered mind.

"You can see kids younger than yourself who have been to war,'' Miller said. "These people are physically or mentally ill. We have certain things protected. They're doing it with their lives. It takes on a whole new meaning, to go there and actually see the repercussions of war abroad.''

Miller began visiting the Danville VA facility in high school with his grandfather, Alfred Reynolds, a DAV state adjutant from Decatur. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and linebacker Rodney Pittman joined Miller last winter.

"Brit's grandpa and family have raised him very well in the perspective of doing what you can for other people,'' Hoomanawanui said. "Sometimes as athletes we take things for granted.''

Miller made more than a dozen trips to the VA facility through the years, lugging boxes of donations and spending time with the hospitalized veterans. He served in a lead role in a supply drive for the Cunningham home last summer and, like other Illini athletes, visits the children's oncology ward at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.

Miller was one of 22 football players nationally to receive the Good Hands Team award from the American Football Coaches Association. (Northwestern senior receiver Eric Peterman, a Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin graduate, was the only other award winner in the Big Ten Conference.)

"He cares about people,'' said Illini coach Ron Zook. "It takes effort to go above and beyond. He's a guy who does that.''

Miller thought the switch to middle linebacker wouldn't be that big of an adjustment but struggled early before becoming more steady. The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Miller leads the Big Ten and ranks 11th nationally with 10.6 tackles per game.

"You have to think about more things, set the front and make the calls and the checks,'' said co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch. "You're mentally in charge out there. On the outside, you can run around and make plays. In the middle, you have to make the play every time.''

Miller and the Illini want to get it done with three games at home over the next four. Minnesota would become bowl eligible after posting a 1-11 record in coach Tim Brewster's first season there a year ago. Brewster, a captain as a tight end on Illinois' 1983 Big Ten champ that played in the Rose Bowl, would desperately like to win in his first trip to Memorial Stadium after he lobbied for the Illini opening that eventually went to Zook.

"This would be a pivotal point in our season,'' Miller said. "We know that we got one against Michigan. Now we've got a chance to win at home. I'm pumped up. This is a crucial part in our season.''

But it's only part of the workload for Miller.

John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.

(Editors: Radio information and betting line must be updated in preview capsule.)

Illinois (3-2, 1-1) vs. Minnesota (5-1, 4-1)

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium (62,870), Champaign

Series record: Minnesota leads 31-27-3

Last meeting: Illinois 44-17 (2007)

Rankings: Both teams unranked

Radio:

TV: ESPN

The line:

Coaches: Ron Zook, 16-25 in fourth season at Illinois, 39-39 in seventh season overall; Tim Brewster, 6-12 in his second season at Minnesota and overall.

NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 19th, 210.8; passing 38th, 245.0; scoring 23rd, 35.6; total 18th, 455.8. Illinois defense -- rushing 78th, 159.8; passing 67th, 211.2; scoring 93rd, 29.6; total 74th, 371.0. Minnesota offense -- rushing 80th, 131.3; passing 44th, 238.0; scoring 43rd, 30.3; total 61st, 369.3. Minnesota defense -- rushing 49th, 127.8; passing 81st, 226.5; scoring 35th, 18.5; total 62nd, 354.3.

Notable: Illinois won only two of the last eight games against Minnesota. The Illini haven't won back-to-back games against the Gophers since the 1994 and 1995 seasons. The Illini haven't defeated Minnesota in Memorial Stadium since a 25-14 victory in 2001. . . Illinois won two home non-conference games in September and seven of the last eight in Memorial Stadium. . . Illinois quarterback Juice Williams leads the Big Ten in total offense at 323.8 yards per game. The Illini offense ranks second in the Big Ten in all four major categories. . . Gophers receiver Eric Decker leads the nation in receiving yards (116 per game) and ranks third in receptions per game (8.3). . . Before last season, the Gophers made bowl appearances in five straight years and seven of the previous eight under former coach Glen Mason.

Quotable:  "You get a chance to play four Big Ten games a year at home. Our kids have to be ready to go. Our fans have to be ready to go. We have to go out there and put it to them. Minnesota is coming in here with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.'' -- Illinois coach Ron Zook.

Prediction: Illinois 34, Minnesota 20