BELTON — KJ Miller believes Mary Hardin-Baylor is just as good as it was in 2018 when it won the national championship, and he should know. He was a key player on the Crusaders’ run to the title.
“We have talent everywhere. I believe we’re as talented as the 2018 team,” the senior receiver said. “That seems like a long time ago.”
A lot has happened for Miller since the Crusaders hoisted the trophy in December 2018. He wasn’t with the UMHB program in 2019, returned in 2020 only to see the fall season wiped out by the pandemic, played all five games in last spring’s truncated campaign and didn’t suit up for the first two games this season for disciplinary reasons.
By the time Miller took the field against Southwestern on Sept. 18, it had been 33 months since he played in a game with postseason ramifications.
“I went back home in 2019. I had a lot going on so I wanted to sit out and just focus on myself, but I was still working out. I just took some time off from football,” he said. “I never thought about completely quitting football. I was just frustrated at the time. It was after the 2019 season that I decided to come back.
“Then last fall was pretty frustrating for everybody, but you just have to take it one step at a time. We stayed together as a team and just kept working and waited until the time came when we could play again.”
And now that he’s playing again, Miller is producing at a rate similar to his 2018 season in which he had a team-high 51 catches and returned three punts for touchdowns.
He accounted for 20 of the Crusaders’ 66 receptions last spring, and he has a team-best 21 catches — including five for TDs — while averaging 26.2 yards per punt return in just four games this season heading into today’s matchup between No. 2 UMHB (6-0, 5-0 American Southwest Conference) and Sul Ross State (1-4, 1-4) in Alpine.
“I think I’ve grown, not only as a football player, but as a person and a leader,” the speedy West Orange-Stark product said. “It helped me to step up and be a leader for the younger guys.
“I work hard, so I see myself being a better player than I was in 2018.”
Miller has a knack for producing in the biggest contests.
In the 2018 national championship game in Shenandoah, he caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jase Hammack with 9:46 remaining to cap a 12-play, 80-yard drive and give the Crusaders a 24-13 cushion against Mount Union on their way to a 24-16 victory.
On Sept. 25 of this season, he caught a 27-yard touchdown throw from Kyle King for UMHB’s only first-half points against rival Hardin-Simmons before the Crusaders rallied from a 28-7 halftime deficit for a 34-28 win.
“That Hardin-Simmons game taught us to never give up and keep fighting to the end,” Miller said. “It taught us about adversity because we had never started a game like that before. We had to keep fighting.
“And winning that national championship, especially in Texas, is something I’ll always remember.”
If Miller and the Crusaders have their way, they’ll make a similar memory come mid-December in Canton, Ohio.