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Kolton Miller thriving as Raiders left tackle

Kolton Miller knew he was going to play in the NFL. He’d heard the buzz. Received the feedback. Warranted by his play at UCLA.

But before his redshirt sophomore year concluded, before the pursuit of professional football intensified, he needed approval from one person in particular: his younger brother, Chad.

The younger Miller has a rare neurological disorder and can’t play the game that he loves so much. So the older Miller, now the Raiders left tackle, sought to play professionally on his behalf and solicited his opinion on Easter at the Kimble Hotel near UCLA’s campus.

“Hey, bro, I might have an opportunity to go to the NFL. What do you think?” he asked while the two waited for their mother, Karrie, to pick up dinner from a nearby market.

“Do it!” Chad exclaimed.

“If you want me to go, I’ll go,” Kolton said. “I’m going to go. And I’m going to do this for you, Chad. You hear me? I’m going to do this for you.”

Miller isn’t just playing in the NFL. He’s playing exceptionally well, protecting Raiders quarterback Derek Carr’s blind side. In six games, the 26-year old hasn’t allowed a sack and is the third-best pass-blocking tackle in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

All while anchoring a unit in flux amid youth and injuries to key contributors.

“I thank God for that man every day. Like he’s got to be one of the best, if not the best — obviously I’m biased because he protects me — left tackles in all of football,” Carr said. “What I loved so much was when we drafted him everyone was mad, and I would sometimes wonder where we would be if we didn’t have him.”

The why

Miller plays now for his teammates. His brethren on the offensive line. Carr. The glut of skill position players to whom he throws. But he still draws inspiration from Chad, who remains his biggest supporter from afar.

The younger Miller is seven years Kolton’s junior and was born with a rare birth defect called Moebius syndrome. The condition is caused by “underdevelopment of the facial nerves that control some of the eye movements and facial expressions,” according to Johns Hopkins Medicines.

It also affects speech and motor skills, thereby permanently relegating Chad to the sidelines. But he became his big brother’s muse, beginning in high school and continuing in college.

“He was always there on the sidelines, slapping guys hands,” Miller said. “He’s a big motivator as to why I wanted to be as successful as I am to know in the back of my mind that if I make it here, him and my family will always be taken care of.”

Miller was originally a standout baseball player, known for hitting towering home runs out of the baseball fields across the suburban Sacramento area, where he grew up. But he pivoted toward football in junior high, in part because of the natural camaraderie the sport facilitates.

He worked and he worked and he worked, first with his father, Dan, and then with renowned offensive line specialist Jon Osterhout, who doubles as the football coach at junior college power American River College in Sacramento.

Osterhout runs an offensive lineman clinic called Linemen Win Games, and Miller was a pupil — training four times per week for several months during the high school offseason to refine his technique. Osterhout, too, knew why Miller kept coming.

“A lot of things Kolton does are for (Chad),” said Osterhout, who trained Miller during several offseasons and helped him prepare for the 2018 NFL draft. “Where this kid’s been from and where he’s headed … this kid is going to play a lot of football. He’s a grown man and certainly a guy who’s going to be able to hold down that spot for a decade-plus.”

Miller blossomed during his junior year of high school and earned scholarship offers from powerhouse programs across the country.

Chad would accompany him on his college visits. He’ll attend Raiders home games when he can.

“They’re brothers,” said Miller’s mother. “But as far as the drive that Kolton has, I want to hope in my heart that he’s doing this for himself. His work ethic is crazy.”

The how

Miller knew during his junior year at Roseville (California) High School that he wanted to play in the NFL. He wrote down his goals on a piece of paper that hung in his locker, reading them every day. Osterhout’s tutelage helped Miller blossom into a Division I player.

A redshirt year at UCLA helped him develop into a three-year starter.

“I really took that year to home in on my base fundamentals, getting used to the speed and strength,” Miller said. “It’s a bigger jump from high school to college … as opposed to college and the NFL.”

Long hours in UCLA’s weight room and explosive movements like power cleans and snatches helped Miller develop the requisite core and lower-body strength necessary to support his 6-foot-8-inch frame and excel at the NFL level. Additional hours studying film — often two or three after practices — helped him refine his technique.

He debuted in 2015 as a right tackle and concluded his college career as a left tackle and one of the top offensive line prospects in the 2018 draft. The Raiders selected him with the No. 15 overall pick. His rookie season was marred by a nagging knee injury.

He allowed a league-high 16 sacks that year along with a league-high 65 pressures.

“I just stayed off social media and really just paid attention to film and like ‘OK, I can adjust with my technique.’ … Really keeping my focus,” Miller said. “You’ve got to have humility and know what you need to work on. You have to understand your body’s mechanics. … In between the lines there are these crucial little details in how your body is positioned, when you’re striking. Where you’re striking. All these little things to take into account.”

With that said, Miller’s work ethic never wavered. He remained diligent with his film study and his strength training, leading to gradual improvement in 2019 and 2020.

PFF tabbed Miller as the 76th-ranked tackle in 2018, 44th in 2019 and 33rd in 2020. The Raiders rewarded his improvements in March with a lucrative contract extension, crystallizing his future as the franchise left tackle.

He’s been even better this year, ranking 19th among a pool of 79 tackles. He says he’s playing more freely this year with the security the contract extension provides.

“It helps eliminate all doubt and be the best you can be,” he said.

Miller’s play this season has been especially vital on a unit that features rookie guard Alex Leatherwood, second-year guard John Simpson and third-year center Andre James, who is in his first year as a starter. But Miller hasn’t missed a snap and is doing his part to keep Carr upright.

Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said Miller “is who we thought he would be” when the Raiders scouted and drafted him more than three years ago.

“We look back at times and we have had several conversations like ‘Mom, can you believe I was a Roseville Tiger and then I went to UCLA,” Karrie Miller said. “And then, he goes, ‘Would you believe I got drafted by the Raiders?’ … It’s unbelievable, really. And to see him so humbled and come into a man of his own. He’s finally spread his wings. We can take a step back now and let him just go. If he stays healthy, I think great things are still to come because of who he is.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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