Breakout performances are always a good thing and never, ever a bad thing for a football team. They are a testament to the coaching staff's ability to develop players, especially guys who come in from a depth role and play like a high-end starter.
That's exactly what Florida Gators linebacker Ventrell Miller did in Saturday night's 24-20 win over the Miami Hurricanes. A 2019 debut that few saw coming, as Miller was listed as the backup MONEY (weak-side) linebacker entering the week.
He took the majority of snaps at MONEY - for unspecified reasons over starter Amari Burney - and made the most of them, recording six total tackles, including two of Florida's 10 sack performance, and one pass breakup.
It was puzzling to see Burney play so sparingly, specifically in pass coverage as Hurricanes redshirt freshman quarterback Jarren Williams gained momentum as the game went on. He made his pass game presence known on the first drive of the game - Burney dropped into coverage near the line to gain on 3rd and 12, but reacted quickly to an underneath screen and made a stop short of the first down marker. He split a forced fumble with defensive tackle Marlon Dunlap Jr. on the tackle, but Miami recovered.
Without Burney making that play, Miami would have likely converted a first down and been in the redzone - instead, they settled for a field goal.
However, it was clear that Miller earned his time on the field. He displayed great range as a tackler, making plays both in the backfield and from sideline to sideline.
Reminiscent of Vosean Joseph shooting gaps on blitz calls, Ventrell Miller made his presence known against Miami's inexperienced offensive line. He was decisive in his gap fills on delayed blitzes, and diagnosed plays in a timely fashion in order to wreak havoc.
Miller's anticipation of gap openings led to his pass-rushing success. He delayed his get-off to process interior blocking responsibilities, and once he keyed his gap, his natural speed and agility took over to break through contact.
Burney did see the field in moments throughout the game at both MONEY and STAR. When lined up as the nickel STAR, he spent time covering the flats as a response to Miami's early screen calls. On those snaps, starting STAR Trey Dean III was off the field, despite having positional flexibility as well and having a productive night - he recorded 3.5 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, and forced a fumble.
Given Miller's breakout game against Miami, Florida has to find a way to keep him on the field. This presents a problem though for the Florida defense, as it takes away snaps from a guy in Burney who was also productive on his limited snaps and made a successful transition to MONEY this summer.
Florida's weak link on defense against Miami were the safeties, specifically Jeawon Taylor and Shawn Davis. They struggled to angle themselves against outside runs and missed plenty of tackles, which led Miami to several big plays.
Perhaps Florida can find a way to get Burney more involved in the secondary as a rotational player with Dean, giving them both roles as the STAR and at safety in packages. Dean is a fluid athlete who should thrive as a free safety, which would allow Burney to play STAR in clear passing situations. And Burney's added bulk paired with down-field agility makes him a candidate for strong safety reps on early downs, where he can come down against the run and help handle tight ends. In those situations, Dean could move back to STAR.
Regardless of how Florida approaches the situation, Ventrell Miller's breakout game gives the Gators a problem that they most likely want to have. It gives the defense plenty of flexibility at positions with key contributors who can play in multiple roles.