North Xtra: North Hills grad gives Mercyhurst a boost

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After stepping away from Mercyhurst University and its football team for a year in 2012, North Hills High School graduate R.J. Miller had an outstanding season in 2013, earning a first-team designation on the All-PSAC West team and an ECAC All-Star selection.

After catching 15 passes and gaining 186 yards, Miller, a tight end, has high hopes for his senior season.

In the time that he was away from the team for personal reasons, Miller worked out extensively on his own and was ready to resume his career.

"I missed football a lot, so it wasn't hard for me to work out and run and do all that stuff," he said. "I just tried to stay in shape."

Because versatility is the lifeblood of any tight end, Miller believes he is effective as both a blocker and a receiver.

"I enjoy blocking and I enjoy catching passes," he said. "My strength would be blocking, but I'm also a good receiver."

After eight games, the Lakers were 4-4, but they won their last three games to finish with a 7-4 record. Miller thought the strong finish gave Mercyhurst a big boost going into the 2014 season.

"I think it gave us a great foundation as we have a lot of guys coming back," he said. "We have a lot of young, skilled players and good, young linemen. So, I think winning those last three games was good as it was the first time Mercyhurst had back-to-back winning seasons in a long time."

Miller's assessment was correct -- the last time the Lakers had successive winning seasons was when the 1991 and 1992 teams compiled records of 5-4 and 5-4-1, respectively.

Miller believes the team could have three successive winning seasons, something that never has occurred since Mercyhurst started playing football in 1981. That quest will begin Saturday when they travel to Waltham, Mass., to play Bentley in their season opener.

He's especially positive about Brandon Brown-Dukes, a 5-8, 195-pound junior from Orlando, Fla., who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons in the Mercyhurst backfield. Dukes rushed for 1,008 yards a year ago and scored eight touchdowns. In 2012, he rushed for 1,296 yards and scored 16 touchdowns.

"He's a great running back, and [four-year starter] Ben Gysin is a great offensive lineman," he said. "We have some other young linemen who are going to step in, and we also have a good receiving corps."

Some rivalries at other colleges have been placed on hiatus, but Miller said his team always gets up for the annual game against Gannon, which also is located in Erie.

"Gannon is only 20 streets down the road, just five minutes away," he said. "We're really hyped for that game."

The teams have met 17 times, and Mercyhurst owns an 11-5-1 advantage.

One game this season, though, could overshadow the game with Gannon and that is the "Big House Battle" the Lakers will have against Slippery Rock at Michigan Stadium at 1 p.m. on Oct. 14, on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Miller expects the atmosphere to be unique.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet, but once we get up to Michigan and in the Big House with all of those fans there, it will be great.

"I think the last time Slippery Rock played there, there were like 60,000 fans there. Walking out of that tunnel will be a great experience not only for us, but for our fans and for Slippery Rock's fans, too."

Miller said he's never played in a stadium that large before.

"It'll be the biggest stadium I've ever played in, but we're going to treat it like any other game," he said. "But it is going to be fun."

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