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Washington State’s Mason Miller is in a familiar position as another pupil – Cougar tackle Andre Dillard – rises up NFL Draft boards

January 24, 2019

MOBILE, Ala. – An offensive guard from the University of Nevada was selected with the 33rd overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. An offensive tackle from Washington State could be taken off the board that early this year – perhaps earlier.

Mason Miller would like to take full credit for molding Austin Corbett and Andre Dillard into the blocking machines they’ve become, but truth is he only spent a brief amount of time with both players. Miller’s time with Corbett in Reno lasted just one year and by the time he took WSU’s offensive line job last spring, Dillard was already entering his senior season.

But you can bet both players still come up with Miller’s making his recruiting pitches these days.

“I’ve had two in a row and most people don’t get that in a lifetime, so I’ve kind of been laughing about it here recently,” Miller said Wednesday. “I guess I’m the closer, I’m trying to figure it out. It’s a unique deal, it’s obviously pretty special to get to coach two guys like that and then watch them evolve.”

This time last year, Miller was preoccupied with filling a few more recruiting holes for Nevada when Corbett participated in the Senior Bowl, the weeklong showcase for the country’s top college football players that’s held every January in Mobile, Alabama.

But Miller’s scheduled opened up this year, so he extended a recruiting trip to Dallas to watch Dillard play in the 2019 Senior Bowl. After just two days in Mobile, the WSU left tackle, by a few different accounts, has already become one the most-coveted offensive lineman on site.

Understanding that Miller’s a biased party in this ordeal, the WSU assistant wholly agreed Dillard not only held his ground against some of the top defensive linemen in the country, but played as well or better than any of his peers on the offensive line.

“I’m a proud papa, so I’m going to tell you hell yeah he did,” said Miller, who wore an anthracite Cougar hat to Wednesday’s practice, held inside South Alabama’s indoor practice facility because of severe rainstorms.

Dillard’s one of 10 offensive linemen on the South team and rotated in and out of throwing drills Wednesday, occasionally protecting the blind side of Washington State teammate Gardner Minshew.

“I thought he did better in the run game than people probably would expect him to do,” Miller said of Dillard. “He’s so quick and he gets two feet in the ground really fast. He went up against an SEC defensive lineman and gave him all he wanted. Which, watching him go up against the (Jonathan) Ledbetter kid (Georgia), who I think is a really good football player and watching him scoop an Alabama three-technique, to me I was just like, I’m watching that going, ‘All right, he belongs here.’ And there’s no question he does.”

Dillard’s attracting much of the same buzz Corbett did this time last year – and for many of the same reasons, Miller believes.

Corbett was under Miller’s tutelage during a stellar 2017 season in which the offensive guard – now primarily a center for the Browns – was named a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy. The OL coach has connected Dillard and Corbett multiple times over the phone throughout the pre-Draft process.

“Number one is, neither one of them ever talked about it and I think that’s a missed piece,” Miller said.

“You hear all these kids today talking about going to the league. Those two never talked about it almost to the point it annoyed them to talk about it. … When you get that tunnel vision going, it really enhances your play.”

Dillard wasn’t unpolished when he came into his senior season and many analysts projected him as a third- or fourth-round NFL Draft pick. But Miller may have helped him climb a few rounds, refining Dillard’s footwork and spending lots of time teaching him how to engage defenders with his hands.

“That’s something I learned before the season with our new (offensive line) coach,” Dillard told Cover1 Tuesday at the Senior Bowl. “I just for some reason had never tried that before and I’d just kind of done the whole backpedal, two-hand punch every single time for two years and kind of added some variety.”

Miller drilled fresh techniques and new moves this year. The product was an offensive line that gave up just 13 sacks in 2018 – an average of one per game – and helped key Minshew’s record-setting passing season.

“We do a lot of independent hand movements, hand placement, punching techniques,” said Miller, a former Valdosta State running back who spent a large part of his coaching career at NCAA Division II and III schools before climbing to the FBS and Nevada in 2017. “And I tell people, I’ve been doing this for a long time with those guys. I just happen to have freak shows doing it now.

Like Corbett before him, Dillard comes from an Air Raid system that puts its offensive linemen in notably wider splits – an idea hatched long ago by WSU coach Mike Leach and Air Raid founder Hal Mumme. While Minshew adjusts to more traditional NFL concepts this week at the Senior Bowl, such as taking snaps under center, Dillard will need to show scouts he can play within closer proximity to his fellow blockers.

That’s supposedly for an obstacle for Air Raid O-linemen, but Miller would point to a few who’ve made the transition successfully. Former Texas A&M offensive linemen Luke Joeckel played in a high-volume passing offense and Corbett, who played in Matt Mumme’s Nevada Air Raid, was one of the first 40 players off the board last season.

“I kind of think that’s like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Miller said. “… The guy learned how to move in a three-foot space and cover somebody up that was faster than him, so we’ve just enhanced their ability to move their feet. I think the biggest challenge is they just step on each other a little bit, but they’ll get used to it.”

If early reports from the Senior Bowl are accurate, Dillard already has.

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