ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith has another game left on his nine-game suspension for violations of the NFL's substance abuse and personal conduct policies, and Von Miller can't wait to see his buddy back on the football field.
Miller knows exactly what Smith is going through.
Denver's pass-rushing linebacker missed the first six games last year while serving a drug suspension and then collected just five sacks in nine games before blowing out his right knee last December and missing the Super Bowl.
Miller is back this year and hit the halfway point with nine sacks, on pace to challenge his club record of 18 1-2 he set in 2012. He was named the AFC's Defensive Player of the Month in October.
Miller and Smith became friends in 2011 as part of the draft class that came into the league as the NFL and players were hashing out a new labor deal. He said Smith helped him through his suspension last year, so he's returned the favor, texting, calling and encouraging his friend over the last two months.
''Yeah, he helped me through mine. And we were going through stuff at the same time, too. So, we were talking together about what I was going through, what he was going through: `We're going to get through this.' We were there for each other,'' Miller said. ''It was like I know how it is when you get suspended, it just feels like nobody (has your back). So, I just wanted to be the guy that would just keep reaching out to him, like, `I haven't forgotten about you. And I'm not even on your team.'
''It's bigger than that. He's my friend. I care about him. I'm happy that he's doing a whole lot better,'' Miller added. ''I'm excited for him to come back and have all that stuff out the way. It's a different feeling when you have all that stuff out the way and can just focus on football.''
Miller said he's tried to tell Smith about what to expect in returning to action at midseason.
''It's like the start of the season, everything's new, everything's fresh. So, like coming back is easy, really. And like you get sore. I had that first Wednesday practice in pads and I was sore,'' Miller said.
The danger, Miller said, is that you want to make up for all the games you missed.
''You want to come back and you want to have four sacks in the first game, another four sacks in the next game and catch up to everybody,'' Miller said. ''Like when I came back and I got my first sack, it was like, `OK I've got one. So, I've got 10 games left. If I can get three sacks this game, four sacks this game, I can catch up to everybody.'
''But that's not my game. I just like to go out there and just play. But I feel like Aldon can come back and get 10-plus sacks, 12 sacks. Especially with the type of schedule they got and they'll get Patrick Willis back. They'll get Navarro Bowman back later in the year. They'll be ready to roll.''
Miller said he had a clear conscience after serving his suspension and never even considers the possibility that if he slips up again he could face a year's suspension.
''That's part of maturity. You don't even worry about getting in trouble any more,'' Miller said.
He said he suspects Smith's play will reflect the load that's been taken off his shoulders, too.
''It's a huge burden lifted. Just to be back on the field with the guys is the biggest part. Being back on the field is huge. It's great. Just lifting weights and watching film and going home. You're back with the guys,'' Miller said. ''So, I know how he feels. I know he's working hard. I know he's training, conditioning and all that. I wanted to change my body. I know he wanted to stay exactly where he is.''
Miller bulked up by 25 pounds heading into last season. The extra weight made him top heavy and might even have contributed to his torn right ACL in December. He's back down to 245 and said in retrospect he wouldn't have packed on the pounds during his banishment.
''I probably would have lost a little weight,'' Miller said.
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