If there was ever any doubt that Ben Miles was his father’s son, Gabe Fertitta sends over a text message with a link, because no emoticon on God’s green Earth will do it justice.
It opens to the future Nebraska Cornhusker’s Twitter feed, a thumb scroll that reads out pretty much like that of any other red-blooded American teenage football player. Until you get to this part:
#hogfbchat put the FB off set and and let him down block the nose. Worked most efficiently in a half line drill.
— ben miles (@BenBmiles2) December 20, 2016
#hogfbchat TE, FB, and H’s are going allow you to mix the schemes more in depth. Can’t wait for the clinic. In Ben, fullback enthusiast.
— ben miles (@BenBmiles2) December 20, 2016
“It’s all these high-school coaches talking inside zone reads and power dives,” explains Ben Miles, the Huskers’ fullback jewel from the recruiting class of 2017 and the youngest son of Les Miles, the former LSU and Oklahoma State football coach.
“I want to coach, so I’m always in my high school coaches’ ears, trying to pick their brains, and what do they think about this, and what about this? So I saw that, and I saw that as a great opportunity to get in there and see if I can make a useful comment.”
According to its root web site, #Hogfbchat is a Twitter conversation that was launched by two prep offensive line coaches in February 2015 and held on Monday nights. Insider stuff. Shop talk, mostly. A place to collaborate and network about offensive line play, football schemes and the world of coaching. Coaches from the Power 5 conferences, the NFL and high schools across the nation contribute weekly.
Oh, yeah, and a 3-star fullback — sorry, fullback enthusiast — from Baton Rouge, La.
“But when I went to (post), whenever everyone else was (identifying) as an offensive coordinator at this high school and running back coach at this high school, I realized, ‘Man, I didn’t really have a title,’ ” Ben continues. “So I thought, ‘fullback enthusiast’ would be a great one. Because, someday, when I coach, it’s going to be fourth-and-20, and I’m going to find a way to put (multiple) fullbacks in the game.”
Good luck with that.
“He’ll get in there and (start) talking like he’s some football coach,” laughs Fertitta, the head football coach at Miles’ high school, Baton Rouge Catholic, Ben’s old offensive coordinator and general sounding board. “And it is comical, how he’ll get on there and talk and pretend like he knows exactly what he’s talking about.
“You could probably do 10 stories on some of the funny things this kid does. He’s interesting, man.”
‘I just wanted to do my own thing and make my own brand’
In many ways, the status of Ben and Les Miles’ relationship is the same as any father and son: In Facebook terms, it’s … complicated. A tug of war between respect and independence, love and duty, pride and prejudice, boxes and boundaries.
“Manny calls me ‘Dad,’ Smacker calls me ‘Dad,’ ” Les says, referring to Ben’s older two siblings. “Ben calls me ‘Daddy.’ And I told him that if he called me ‘Daddy,’ you can get a car.
“If there was some advantage of being ‘Daddy,’ well, you know what, he’s not going to forget that. It’s real sweet. When we run around outside, it’s ‘Dad,’ but when it’s around the house, it’s ‘Daddy,’ But I love it.”
And yet what Daddy also knew, deep down, was that selling Ben, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound sledgehammer of a back, on the Tigers could be a steeper hill than anyone outside the family’s inner circle realized. The elder Miles was chasing Bay St. Louis, Miss., quarterback Myles Brennan, a former protégé of Fertitta’s, and when Brennan took his campus visit, Fertitta came over to say hello.
“Everybody’s all happy,” the prep coach recalls, “and coach Miles comes up to me and says, ‘Now, you know, Gabe, there’s this young, strapping lad of a fullback you guys have over there at Catholic I (need) a little help with.’ ”
“I said, ‘Coach, you see him every day.’
“Ben is a really independent kid. He’s the kind of kid if you suggest to him that he go study something and go read about something or even if you make a visual references to things, like in meetings, he’ll go back and research it and look it up and study it, if he thinks it’s something that’s going to benefit him. I could see how he’s a real independent kid when it comes to the family (side) of things.”
The more Ben looked up Nebraska, the more he studied it, the more it appealed to him. The stadium. The facilities. The tradition. The offense. The people, mostly.
“He really enjoyed coach (Mike) Riley and his position coaches,” Les Miles says. “He really felt like there was a real connection. And he liked the players — the players were quality guys, and he enjoyed spending time with them.
“It’s a beautiful place. It’s a place where they’re the only show in the state. There’s no pro football and there’s no other college (programs) of real note … and when Ben went up there for his official visit, I was fortunate to be able to attend. He came away just happy as he could be.”
And Daddy knew where this story was headed. Les’ oldest daughter, Kathryn “Smacker” Miles, swims at the University of Texas. Ben’s older brother Manny is a quarterback at North Carolina.
“That’s one thing we’ve done is really taught independence with our children,” Les says. “I don’t know if that’s a blessing or an issue.
“I thought (Manny) was coming to us. I thought he was going to LSU. To be honest with you, I would like to have had Ben (there), but Ben was never coming to us. He was always going to be independent.
“He said, ‘Dad, I just don’t want to be in the locker room where the head coach just ripped somebody and I have to, in some way, interpret it (to my peers). I’m not going to do that.’ And I understood that, too.”
“Honestly, that was less of a factor,” Ben says. “But yeah, that was something I did think about. But I think I would’ve handled those situations OK when they came, but yeah, it is different. You want to be in the team with the same relationships with your teammates, and the same relationship to your coach as your teammates, so everything is even and balanced out.
“It’s really (that I) just wanted to do my own thing and make my own brand. And just be separate. That’s really what it was, for me. I think I could’ve handled any locker room issues that would’ve come up.”
Once the Big Red got in the picture, they stayed there. During a conversation late this past summer, while they were volunteering around Baton Rouge, gutting houses wrecked by recent floods, Fertitta noticed that whenever they discussed Miles’ Nebraska offer, the kid would perk up, a gleam in his eye.
“Every time he visited there and talked with their coaches, he would always tell me how much he liked the staff,” Fertitta says. “He’s a coach’s kid, so obviously the staff is going to play into his decision. And I know he really enjoyed the staff and coach Riley.
“And also, I think the football mystique of Nebraska certainly attracted him. He’s a football junkie kind of kid.”
— ben miles (@BenBmiles2) February 5, 2017
“I don’t know — I think (Dad) had mixed feelings about it,” Ben says.
“Because he was proud that I wanted to do my own thing, but at the same time, he wanted to coach me. So, I mean, we had conservations about it, but it was very different than a coach you don’t know coming in for a visit. It would be tough to explain that conversation.”
When Les was let go at LSU last Sept. 25 after a 2-2 start with losses to Wisconsin in Green Bay and Auburn on the Plains, it was a Sunday, and Catholic was in a team meeting. Fertitta got word and pulled Ben aside for a few minutes so he’d hear it first from him, and not from social media, a classmate or a reporter.
“That was a real touching experience,” Fertitta says. “Because the kid — he’s just a great kid. He goes, ‘Coach, I love you, I wouldn’t want to hear it from anybody else.’ Just took it in stride.”
‘If you don’t take him seriously as a threat running the ball, you’ll pay the price’
The strides, at first glance, are not unlike those of a wild mustang — Hudl.com’s profile charts Miles with a 4.8 time in the 40-yard dash and a 425-pound squat — with an attitude to match:
— Tonge’ Helaire (@HelaireTonge) August 29, 2015
With soft hands and angry legs, Ben Miles was one of Fertitta’s favorite toys. He could be lined up as a blocking back or an H-back, along the line of scrimmage, even out wide. No. 29 helped steer the Bears to the program’s first state title as a junior, followed by a 10-3 record, 236 rushing yards and 223 receiving yards his senior season.
Up close, the fullback enthusiast is a closet perfectionist. Fertitta remembers Ben being stalemated by a defender on one play, coming back to the sideline and hinting to him, and not subtly, that they should run that play again.
“If somebody got the better of him on a block,” Feritta says, “he would come over to the sidelines, he wouldn’t say anything, but it would be written all over his face. He’d say, ‘Coach, run it at that No. 9 again. I got to handle something in here.’ It wasn’t very often that he didn’t get the best of the guy the next time.”
Former Catholic coach Dale Weiner, who retired and handed to reins to Fertitta a few months back, mentored stud backs such as Warrick Dunn and Travis Minor when they were teens. He says Miles’ motor matches any of them, piston for piston.
“He is a physical football player but is an agile football player with his skill set,” Weiner says. “He’s going to do great at the collegiate level. If you don’t take him seriously as a threat running the ball, you’ll pay the price. And if you don’t take him seriously catching the ball, you’ll pay the price.
“A lot of guys can make plays when everything’s going their way. There’s no pressure, there’s no tension, there’s no doubt. ‘Oh, we’re (crushing) them.’ A lot of people can make a play then. But when it’s on the line and you’re really expected to win and you say, ‘Hey, I want the ball,’ that’s the kind of guy he is.”
A guy who never left the house without a football too far from his heart. Or, for that matter, his biceps. Daddy remembers Ben always keeping a ball handy — in a bag, in the car, wherever — just in case.
“He goes, ‘You know, you’ve got a game Saturday on a schedule,’ ” Les Miles recalls. “ ‘We don’t have a schedule. We don’t have a game. I’m not on a team. If I don’t have the ball with me, we don’t have a game, so (that’s) why I have to have the ball with me.’
“That’s Ben. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen him play a tackle football game without pads, and this is in the middle of a baseball game Manny was pitching in. Just some really big, strong kids that are going to play major-college football, but they did it because of the organization of Ben.
“And when he started being a guy that was filmed in practice, he studied that practice film … I guess what I’m saying is, Ben has an interest as well as an aptitude for football. He loves it. He wants to know ‘Why.’ ”
Meanwhile, Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf sold him on the how. When Ben saw the way the Huskers in 2015 used ex-Big Red fullback Andy Janovich, now with the Denver Broncos, his eyes got wide.
“The (scheme) is really flexible,” Ben Miles says. “You see them go three-wide with a back a lot, but you also see them go two-backs, see them go fullback and tight end. They ran a one-fullback set where they basically had no tailbacks with a fullback in, and they also ran a lot of H-back, different H-back (looks).
“So I think there are some opportunities for me in some H-back schemes; I think there are some opportunities in every fullback scheme. Honestly, I love putting my hand on the ground and playing fullback, but I love having the ball in my hands. (And) making a block. So whatever they ask me, I’m going to do, and compete in that spot.”
‘He’s just going to put on the pads and get to work’
And if you doubt the passion, doubt the juice, Daddy offers up this fun little anecdote. Ben and Manny were playing the NCAA Football video game sometime around the former’s sophomore year of high school — he might’ve been younger than that, Les admits — and the little brother decided to take a restroom break. A friend of Manny’s turned up and the older sibling conspired to keep Ben trapped in the bathroom, declaring that he was going to let his friend finish the game instead.
Oh, hell, no.
“And they kind of excluded me and were using my game, so I felt, obviously, a little emotional about that,” Ben says. “The next thing you know, the door was getting broken down so I could get the game back.”
He banged with his fists. Nothing. He decided to take a few steps back and try leading with his shoulder.
“All of a sudden,” Ben says, “it just came right off the hinges.”
“These are not little, small doors,” Les Miles says. “I’m telling you right now, I come home and I see the fight, (it) was not going to stop, there was going to be an ugly, ugly, finish. So I would (get) in between them. But that’s brothers. I don’t think there’s any way Ben doesn’t support Manny just fully.
“I mean, it was fixing to be a real fight, where we had to repair the stinking door besides that.”
With Ben and Manny being Ben and Manny, brothers competitive to the last, if it wasn’t doors at the Miles home, it was walls. And, on occasion, glass.
“We broke some windows,” Ben says. “We used to move furniture out of the living room and play tackle football in the living room. And we would bust down pictures and get knocked into the fireplace. I mean, just physical stuff growing up.”
Fortunately, no one ever got seriously hurt during the scraps, Ben says. Well, except for one time, as a kid, when he’d set up a trampoline underneath a basketball rim to try and practice his rudimentary dunking skills.
“And I ended up banging the rim and leaning back and I hit my head pretty good,” Ben says. “And blood went everywhere. I kind of blacked out a little bit. That never turned out to be concussion.”
The I’ll-stop-this-car–right-now moments weren’t frequent, but they were memorable. Such as the time a frustrated Tigers coach noticed Ben being less than kind to younger sister Macy Grace, stressing his disappointment during a school drop-off. What happened to the good kid we thought we knew?
“And Ben looked at me, and it really affected him,” Les Miles says. “He took it very seriously. And he said — I just got a kick out of it — he said, ‘I’m a good kid.’ Every day. Every day.”
A fun kid, too, when the mood strikes.
Weiner met Ben for the first time when the latter was 7 or 8 and enrolled in a youth wrestling clinic at Catholic. The Miles family was still relatively new to Baton Rouge, and the longtime instructor went to the wrestling room upstairs during a session to try to find a coach. Before long, he noticed one of the kids jumping up excitedly in furious protest.
“All of a sudden, there’s this guy,” Weiner chuckles, “and he’s got another kid on the ground and the other kid’s just kicking at him and then running up to the wrestling coach and going, ‘Hey, he keeps tickling me.’ ”
A coach pointed at the tickling perpetrator.
“(Someone said), ‘That’s coach Miles’ kid. That’s Ben, that’s the younger one,’ ” Weiner says. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ That’s him, just being playful, always in a good mood.
“Ben loves everything about football. He likes practices. He likes the workouts. He likes running. He likes playing. He likes the grind part of it. He’s always got a positive outlook. I have never seen him with a negative attitude. Never. And to me, Les is very much like that. He’s typically looking at the positive side of things. And I think that has rubbed off on both his boys. I think they’re both cut out of the same mold. I think he has a lot of his dad’s traits.”
And a lot of his mom’s moves.
“Now the word on the street is that he gets all the athleticism from his mom — she was a phenomenal basketball player,” Ferttita says. “But I know his dad was just — talk about a Bo Schembechler-type of disciple. And Ben is very much like that in that (he says), ‘Coach, why are we throwing the ball? Let’s just run this thing.’ Very much into physical football.
“And I think he gets a lot of that from his dad, which is neat, because you don’t find that too often now. With prima-donna spread guys, you don’t find those kind of old-school, throwback guys. And I think he’s kind of like his dad in that sense. He’s kind of a throwback player. He’s no-frills. He’s not going to wear a bunch of wrist bands to make himself look pretty. He’s just going to put on the pads and get to work.”
Ben peers into the mirror and sees more parallels to his mother, Kathy. Then again, Mom makes a point to call him “Les Miles Jr.” sometimes, the way moms do when they’re teasing.
Or, more often, when they’re not.
“I think I got a lot of my strength from my dad,” Ben says. “I think I definitely got the ankles and calves and ability to change direction a little bit, and move (my) hips a little bit, from my mom.”
‘I’m not looking for steady in my life’
As for Dad’s next direction — television? coaching? — the cards are tucked tightly to his chest. We know he’ll be the featured speaker at the Nebraska football coaches clinic in Lincoln March 31-April 1. He received a $9.6-million buyout from LSU, and remains one of college football’s most intriguing free agents, the first or second name on almost every media short list for a Power 5 gig.
In the meantime, Les and Kathy are proud sports parents, trying to figure out how best to navigate — well, miles. Call up Google Maps, and the little dots representing the University of Nebraska, the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina form a triangle roughly the shape of a slice of New York-style pizza. It’s 957 from Lincoln to Baton Rouge; 823 from Lincoln to Austin; 1,237 from Lincoln to Chapel Hill …
“I tell my wife … I said, ‘You have to understand, this is going to take, I mean, time,’ ” Les says. “But we’ll find a way.”
They usually do. Even if it means multiple fullbacks on fourth-and-20, just for the hell of it.
“I mean, I just don’t really picture myself doing something without football and without a team,” Ben says. “I’ve always had, between my teams and my father’s teams, guys to look up and be around and be with. That’s really what it’s all about. And once I’m too old to play, I think that I’d just as soon grab a team and coach them.”
He’s seen the highs and lows up close, the fish bowl from the inside, the roller coaster from a shotgun seat. And yet he’s never stopped loving the ride. Twists and all.
“You take the good with the bad and the ups and the downs,” Ben says. “But I think that’s kind of what’s beautiful about it. I’d much rather do that than work in a little office, where not much goes on but I feel like I’ve got something steady.
“I’m not looking for steady in my life. I want something much deeper than that.”
Ben Miles has a muse, and nine times out of 10 it’s doing the Oklahoma drill. During college games on television, he’s often inspired enough to draw up plays of his own, and emboldened enough to take pictures of them on his smart phone and text them to a bemused Fertitta.
“(But) he would never really question anything we did, play-call wise,” the coach says. “He just did what you asked him to do, did it full-speed and he did it with a nasty attitude.
“He’s one of my favorite kids that I’ve coached, for sure. Just from a mindset, you don’t make them any better than that.”
Fullback enthusiast. Husker. In other words, a match made in #Hogfbheaven.