“He doesn’t like the thought of defeat,” Rice said. “If he missed a tackle or messed up a drill, he would want to do it over again until he got it right.”
And extra motivation just made him out-prepare and out-work you. Take his senior year for example. Collins Hill (Ga.) wide receiver Justin Wyatt, who currently plays at Troy University, took to Twitter and called Miles overrated in the week leading up to a game against North Gwinnett.
“I gave Donnie the task to make sure that that kid didn’t catch a pass,” Rice said.
Miles’ diligence in the video room and focus on the field heightened. He’d always been a hard worker, but that week, between the long hours in the film room and better reps on the field, Coach Rice could tell Miles was locked in.
“And that kid didn’t catch a ball,” Rice said. “To know that he could do it that week, I knew that he could do it every week.”
Selling his dreams
When North Carolina football head coach Larry Fedora was recruiting his first couple classes of athletes, it wasn’t as simple as it is now.
Amid hysteria surrounding Tar Heel athletics at that time — the same scandal that has loomed over UNC for the past six years — he was forced to spend more time defending the new school that he wore on his visor than selling it.
The circumstances weren’t ideal, especially for a football program that couldn’t seem to tear off its label of mediocrity. He had so much to prove, even before stepping on campus.
But when given the chance to deliver his sales pitch, the Tar Heel head coach sold something that appealed to everyone: dreams of transforming North Carolina’s football program.
He sold up-tempo offenses and lit up scoreboards. He emphasized brotherhood and the benefits of orienting goals and “sticking to the plan.” Achievements don’t come for those who merely desire — they come to those willing to narrow their focus and concentrate all their decisions so that they’re pushed in one direction.
Fedora saw North Carolina football as wet clay, begging to be sculpted by players willing to change the culture of the historically overshadowed program.
He needed players with reputations of taking their talents and molding them to fit into a system to help a team. He needed players he could trust to buy into his methodology of preparing for every team the same way, every day.
And most importantly, he needed players who could trust him, the mostly unproven coach with dreams of building a home at North Carolina.
“I committed to him because when I was going through my commitment, I wanted someone that was going to be there,” Miles said. “I didn’t want someone that was just going to blow me smoke. And I think Coach Fedora has done a great job with his players since I’ve been here.”
Seeing it all
Five years later, Miles and Fedora are now considered “old heads.”
Miles, a redshirt senior, has separated himself as an elite safety in the ACC. He’s totaled 230 tackles over the past two seasons and started all 27 games.
Entering his sixth season at the Tar Heel helm, Fedora has cemented his reputation of being an offensive guru. He already ranks fifth all-time at UNC with 40 wins, and he set school records for most points and touchdowns in a season in 2015.
But even through their triumphs, they still somehow have plenty to prove. After all, they’ve personally witnessed a historic oscillation of success. They’ve seen their program yo-yo from a losing season in 2014 — in which the team allowed 39.0 points per game — to an ACC Coastal Division championship team in 2015 that rattled off 11 straight wins. Then, in 2016, they both experienced an unexpected and underwhelming five-loss season.
And this upcoming year isn’t void of its harrowing challenges. One day before its first game of the season, North Carolina has yet to announce a starting quarterback. And this past spring, Gene Chizik stepped down as defensive coordinator — making John Papuchis the Tar Heels’ third defensive coordinator in the last five years.
“We’re going to accept the challenge on defense,” Miles said after UNC’s first practice of the season. “Like he said, we haven’t done anything yet, so let’s live up to the hype, live up to the challenge. That’s our main thing.”
The “rude boys,” as the North Carolina secondary so famously call themselves, are a band of brothers who make up the 2017 Tar Heels’ most experienced unit on either side of the ball.
“I think the reason people pair them together is because, you know going on three years, they have started together,” Papuchis said of Miles and cornerback M.J. Stewart. “They’ve both been starters since I’ve come in … They’re both individually talented in their own right, so I’m excited to see both of them get after it their senior year.”
A new spotlight has been cast on this Tar Heel football program. Losing conference records aren’t the norm anymore. For the first time in its recent history, North Carolina has a winning football culture, in part thanks to the former running back turned defensive back and unproven coach turned offensive savant.
For the kid who always wanted to separate himself and the coach who needed such an athlete, no extra sets of eyes could intimidate them.
Once again, they have something to prove.
Then again, they always have.