LINCOLN — One of the key cogs in Nebraska’s 1994 national title machine didn’t initially want his teammates to see him lift weights.
Cornerback Barron Miles, 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds during that first year in the program, knew what skills he had — quickness, leaping ability, smarts, tenacity — and which one he didn’t. He’d hardly used the bench press as an option quarterback in his New Jersey high school, and he wasn’t about to let the elder statesmen in Nebraska’s secondary — guys like Tyrone Legette, Tyrone Byrd and Reggie Cooper — know that he couldn’t hang with them right away.
“They looked at me like I was the waterboy,” Miles joked in a phone interview.
So he lifted alone in UNL’s Campus Recreation gym.
“I trained there until I got up to speed,” Miles said. “Every day I’d go there and lift my weights until I built my strength up so guys wouldn’t look down on me.”
He’d also plot a course for himself that led to two standout years at Nebraska and a 12-year playing career in the Canadian Football League. He now coaches defensive backs in the CFL. In a league that heavily favors passing offenses, Miles said, being a defensive back or coaching them isn’t for those who are easily discouraged.
And Miles isn’t. He never has been.
“No one could beat me, that was my attitude,” Miles said. “It didn’t matter your size, my size, I went in saying, ‘I’m going to dominate, no matter what.’
“I was always the underdog. I was always too short, I was always too slow, I was always, ‘He can’t jump.’ I had nothing to lose.”
Of all the stars on the 1994 team, Miles is rarely the first name to come up. He won’t be able to make the 1994 team’s reunion this weekend at Memorial Stadium — his CFL team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, hosts Ottawa on Sunday — but even if Miles did, his impact at NU may be lost on even seasoned Husker fans.
His senior season — five interceptions, 13 pass breakups, four blocked kicks — ranks among the best for any cornerback in Husker history. He anchored a pass defense that allowed opponents to complete just 47.3 percent of their passes. And he could jump up, up and up — as seen in the defining Sports Illustrated photo of him in the 1995 Orange Bowl, off the ground so far that his hip is equal to Kareem Moss’ head and his feet are equal to Moss’ hip. Forty inches. Maybe more.
“He’s just the kind of kid you were in awe of sometimes,” former defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said.
And Miles, along with Tyrone Williams, gave McBride the kind of lockdown corners he needed to famously change from a 5-2 defense geared for stuffing the option to a more aggressive, attacking 4-3 style that repeatedly swarmed quarterbacks with pressure. If Miles and Williams hadn’t been able to win matchups out on a lonely island, the defense would have left itself open to big plays.
“We would never have changed unless we had two corners who were tough enough to handle it,” McBride said. “You’re hanging them out to dry. But if you had two guys who could cover, you could play the kind of defense we played. Miles is one of the reasons we were able to change.”
The 6-foot, 180-pound Williams — who played nine years in the NFL — fit the physical prototype of a shutdown corner. Miles didn’t, but he made up for it in every other way.
He caught the eye of former Husker assistant Frank Solich late in his high school career in a game his team, Abraham Clark, lost. Miles said he didn’t quit, though, and Solich talked to him after the game.
“I had a bloody lip and everything,” Miles said. He chose NU over offers from Kansas, UMass and Syracuse, among others, and sat out his first year as a Prop 48 recruit.
Once eligible, Miles played 10 games in 1992, backing up current Husker recruiting assistant Kenny Wilhite. In 1993, he became a starter. He also found an aptitude for blocking kicks.
Miles recalled a day in practice when former assistant Tony Samuel was looking for a guy to block punts. Miles volunteered. He was met with skepticism — until he blocked one in practice. He’d hone that skill from then on; he blocked seven in his Nebraska career, including the blocked punt at Oklahoma State that Miles engulfed for a touchdown, and finished his CFL career with a league-record 13 blocked kicks.
“It was a ‘want-to,’” Miles said. “I wanted to go after kicks. That’s what it takes. If you don’t want to do it — take those lumps and bumps — and say to yourself, ‘I’m going to have my eye on the ball and take it off his foot,’ you’re not going to do it.”
He took a similar approach to playing corner. He liked that bigger wide receivers — like UCLA’s J.J. Stokes — would underestimate him; it made his job easier. Miles figured his agility and raw speed — his ability to break on a ball just a tick faster than any receiver — were the advantages he’d use. Then he’d read his keys and understand, to some extent, that receivers were occasionally going to make plays. Miles just made his share, too.
“He had great change of direction and he had great leaping ability,” McBride said. “He was smart and really played the position. If I was going to pick five corners, he’d be one of them. He was just a special kid. Toughness? No question. He’d go after anybody.”
After Nebraska lost in the 1994 Orange Bowl to Florida State, Miles said the team knew it would return to Miami the following year to play for the national title again. After the Huskers lost safety Mike Minter early in the 1994 season, Moss replaced him and the pass defense remained strong. At Kansas State in the rain, KSU quarterback Chad May completed just 22 of 48 passes. Colorado’s Kordell Stewart completed 12 of 28. Oklahoma’s Garrick McGee completed 6 of 17. In the Orange Bowl, Miami’s Frank Costa completed 18 of 35.
Miles calls the aftermath of that game “a blur.” Again, Miles said, Nebraska’s coaches and players had a sense they were better than the Hurricanes and would eventually prevail, and they did. And Miles knew, too, the title run had just begun.
The Pittsburgh Steelers picked Miles in the sixth round of the 1995 NFL draft, but a knee injury cut short his rookie season. He played one year in NFL Europe before joining the Montreal Alouettes in 1998. He finished with 66 career interceptions, was a CFL All-Star five times and won Grey Cup championships with two teams.
“The CFL was built for me,” Miles said. “It was great fit for me. I wanted to play and I wanted my family to see me play.”
But the CFL’s summer/early fall schedule never left him much time to catch up with former Husker teammates. Though Miles came back to Nebraska a few months ago when a nephew was considering walking on, the Roughriders — who are 8-3 so far — will keep him from getting to Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
Miles still feels the bond to NU, though. He checked into the defensive backs vacancy this winter after Terry Joseph left for Texas A&M. He follows the team from afar. And any time he can catch up with a former teammate or coach, it’s natural.
“Everybody I do come across,” Miles said, “it’s like we’ve never been apart.”
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