Skip to main content

South Valley Journal

From walk-on to starter, Summit Academy grad thrives at SUU

May 11, 2021 11:39AM ● By Josh Martinez

By Josh Martinez | [email protected]

Playing college football was always a goal Ryan Miller had for his son Justin Miller, but how much he played was cause for debate.

Early on, Ryan saw his son as someone who could maybe just make a collegiate team. As time wore on, Ryan’s perception changed to Justin not just making a team but making an impact.

Those dreams became reality this past spring when Justin, a Summit Academy graduate, led Southern Utah University as the Thunderbirds’ starting quarterback. 

This accomplishment was the culmination of a journey that began long before Justin attended Summit Academy and included his father, Ryan, Summit Academy head coach, through much of it.

“It’s just a really, really cool experience when the things he worked for and wanted, in spite of the difficult and roundabout way that he got there, it’s really cool to watch it at least start to happen,” Ryan said.

Road to SUU

Justin grew up in Irvine, California, where he played football until his sophomore season. The Millers then moved to Highland where Justin played a season at Lone Peak High School.

Justin then transferred to Summit Academy for his senior season in 2015, amassing 3,359 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and four interceptions. While there, Ryan was defensive coordinator.

The biggest takeaway, however, for Justin was learning leadership. He also had the opportunity to change plays at the line of scrimmage because the school’s offensive coordinator trusted his judgment.

“One of the biggest parts of that was I had to understand our offense and defenses even more so I could get us in the right positions,” Justin said. “So my time at Summit was great. I made a lot of good friends and learned a lot about football in general.”

After graduating, Justin attended Snow College for a season, leading the Badgers to a 7-3 record in 2016 while accumulating 2,124 passing yards with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Justin competed for the starting role at Snow, learning a new pro-style offense in the process that had him under center a lot.

Rather than opting for another year at Snow, Justin served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Romania. While his mind was mostly elsewhere during this time, Justin did keep an eye out for places to continue his playing career.

From walkon to starter

While not being a native Utahn, Ryan said he had never heard of SUU, a Division I FCS program, but visited the campus with Justin for a junior day. Ryan said they both fell in love with the school, but it didn’t show much interest following that visit.

While Justin was on his mission, Ryan started reaching out to myriad schools to help Justin find a landing spot. He started to get some interest but nothing solid.

Justin then returned to Snow and started playing spring football with the Badgers, but Ryan continued marketing his son to interested programs.

One day, Ryan said he was talking to a junior college coach friend from Arizona, who suggested SUU. Ryan expressed his love for SUU but said there wasn’t much of an interest from the school.

Ryan said his friend then reached out to SUU and reported back the coaches were willing to give Justin an opportunity to showcase his talents.

Justin said he knew he would have to prove himself to earn a spot but he still liked SUU.

“It was just the right timing,” Justin said. “Really, one of the only schools, I felt, believed in me and was going to give me a real opportunity to play, so I was really excited to make that decision.”

Another important aspect for Justin was he wanted to go somewhere he could improve the program rather than be plugged in to a successful program. 

SUU head coach Demario Warren said he always thought Justin had potential, but he wanted to see him develop before offering him a scholarship. Warren said he was impressed with how well Justin learned the concepts and applied them on the field, eventually leading to a scholarship in 2019.

“We hired a new [offensive coordinator], and he just took it to a whole other level,” Warren said.  “I think this offense really fits what he does best, which is being a cerebral player that is able to dissect exactly what we’re trying to look at and what we’re trying to find and get the ball to the place that we want to at the right time.”

Before Justin had a chance to prove himself, COVID-19 started tightening its grip on the world, eventually leading to abbreviated 2020 spring practices and a postponed fall season.

During that time, Justin said he continued to train with fellow players, ensuring he would be ready when games resumed.

When the T-Birds returned, Justin became the starting quarterback. SUU finished the spring season with a 1-5 season, but four of those losses were by three or fewer points. 

Justin finished with 1,713 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions, but for him, the biggest takeaways were the relationships he built.

“I really enjoyed the team atmosphere this year,” he said. “I think we’re a lot stronger, and we’re a lot closer knit. We’re really tight as a group, and so I think that has definitely changed from the past seasons.”

Lessons learned

While Justin’s journey has helped him realize some football goals, that’s not what stands out to him the most. 

“I mean, I love football, and I love everything about it,” he said. “But I think one of the most prized things I’ve come away with is the friendships and new relationships with teammates and with coaches that will last longer than the game will.”

As for his abilities, Justin said playing at this level is much faster than he’s experienced. The adjustment was easier because he played at Snow College after high school.

As for how he works with the rest of the team, Warren said Justin excels in leading. He’s noticed Justin give speeches to help motivate his teammates and they respond well.

“Guys just respect him because they know it’s not coming from a person that’s not going to ask for something he’s not willing to do,” Warren said. “Again, he leads by example, but he can also step up and say the uncomfortable things that really galvanize his teammates, and I’m really excited about him being our leader and our captain.”

Ryan described his son as level-headed and not much of a rah-rah personality. Still, when visiting him during a practice, Ryan remembers many teammates treating Justin as a respected leader, though he was a redshirt sophomore.

“I think that’s really what Justin’s all about,” he said. “The combination of level-headed and people respect him for what he’s all about, how he plays, how he works, the whole nine yards.”

To the future

Whenever Justin had a game at SUU this spring, Ryan would find himself awake early in the morning. These early risings came because of nervousness and excitement for his son.

Throughout Justin’s life, Ryan was there to help him prepare the game or to offer coaching advice. Now, Justin is in a new place in his career, a place that took him on many twists and turns.

But that journey doesn’t only benefit Justin, it brings benefits to Summit Academy. Justin serves as an inspiration to those who may be considering playing after high school.

Ryan said it provides his players a blueprint to find success on their collegiate aspirations.

“Just because we’re a [3A] school doesn’t mean that you’re limited,” Ryan said. “You can achieve the goals you have set for yourself even though you’re not coming from a Riverton or a Herriman or one of the big 6A programs in the area.”

As for Justin, the T-Birds will return to action this fall for what he hopes will be a regular season that features improvements for his team.

Along for the ride will be Justin’s father, who’s seen it all happen alongside his son.

“The end of this story might suck, and he could be hurt, he could be benched, a lot of other things could happen,” he said. “But it’s at least cool to see it come together for a short spring season, as a parent, as a coach, in all those ways.”