ATHENS, Ga. -- When Georgia linebacker Danny Verdun Wheeler tossed aside his crutches and returned to the practice field last week after suffering a sprained ankle, Brandon Miller couldn't help but take notice of Verdun Wheeler working on the strongside.
No message was being sent to Miller, penciled in as the strongside starter, linebackers coach John Jancek insists, but the sophomore interpreted the move as a clear signal to raise his play to another level.
"I've got to step up my game again," Miller said. "I've got to get some experience on me and be on my toes with him behind me. I'm running now. I was running before, but not as hard as I am now."
Verdun Wheeler, who moved from the weakside, offers experience with 11 career starts. Miller is a player with plenty of raw talent at a position whose responsibilities can include lining up over a tight end or playing out in space against a receiver.
"I think it's just a matter of trust in terms of putting a guy on the field that you feel comfortable is going to execute the defense and be in the right spots and in the position to make plays," Jancek said. "I feel comfortable with Brandon and Danny. Brandon's really come on in terms of understanding the defense. He's shown a lot of progress in that area."
Both players should get their share of repetitions, Jancek said.
For now, Verdun Wheeler, a junior, is still having trouble changing directions because of the ankle injured in an Aug. 13 scrimmage.
"Danny is just getting back in the groove," Jancek said. "He hasn't played that position in a year. It's just a matter of him getting comfortable."
Jancek expects Verdun Wheeler to be full speed for the Sept. 3 opener against Boise State. Junior Tony Taylor is the starter at middle linebacker and Jarvis Jackson is at weakside linebacker.
"Tony and Jarvis are really clicking right now," Jancek said. "They're in a good groove."
Verdun Wheeler said he eventually expects to be challenging Miller or Jackson for playing time.
"If push comes to shove probably right now I'll back him up the first game or back-up Jarvis," said Verdun Wheeler, who started two games on the strongside in 2003. "I've got a lot more experience than (Miller's) got at (strongside) and I've got game-time experience, but that really doesn't matter to tell you the truth. He's been practicing it and studying it consistently since he got here. I really think he's ready. He's a great linebacker and I really think he deserves the starting job."
The 6-foot-4, 238-pound Miller was Georgia's most highly anticipated recruit in its 2004 class. The Colquitt native picked Georgia over Florida State and Georgia Tech on signing day. As a freshman, Miller had nine tackles and a fumble recovery. He was a special teams standout and figures he played about a quarter as many snaps as a starter would at linebacker.
Miller moved up to first-team when senior Derrick White was dismissed from the team in June following two separate arrests. Georgia also lost junior Odell Thurman from its linebacker corps when he left for the NFL.
"Right now I'm trying to get in the Odell mold," Miller said. "I'm trying to hit somebody right now. It was kind of tough coming from high school to college because this is a whole different experience with the high tempo, but I' m getting used to it. I think I'm already used to it."
Miller's improvement, coach Mark Richt said, has been gradual.
"He's getting better with his techniques and understanding," Richt said. "The more he can understand, the more he can turn it loose and the more physical he can play."