Ron Milus isn’t comfortable taking credit for the success of his secondary.
In each of the last six seasons as the Chargers’ defensive backs coach, Milus has had at least one representative from his unit make a Pro Bowl or All-Pro Team. Safeties Derwin James and Adrian Phillips, and cornerback Desmond King were the latest to reach this feat. Cornerback Casey Hayward did it from 2017-18.
Milus has transformed undrafted free agents Michael Davis and Trevor Williams into bonafide NFL corners. Since 2017, the duo has started a combined 31 games opposite Hayward.
Milus’ first instinct is to deflect praise to a front office responsible for bringing in the talent.
“I think we have to give credit to [General Manager] Tom Telesco and the scouting department,” Milus said. “They were the guys who saw these guys and said, ‘OK, they fit what we’re trying to do. They have the traits that the defense needs.’”
For optimal success, the traits that these players possess must be molded; the players need to be showered with the necessary confidence and discipline to perform as a cohesive unit; and the unit has to be bigger than any one individual. That’s all been in Milus’ job description over the last 19 years in the NFL.
Entering year No. 20, he’ll lead a collection of rookies, UDFAs, late-round draft picks and Pro Bowlers known as the JackBoyz – a confident, vocal, in-your-face group of defensive backs whose infectious enthusiasm permeates the roster and fan base.
Under Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley, the even-keeled Milus is at the controls.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m a little more subdued in my personal life than when we start this football thing,” he said.
For the DBs, each practice starts the same tone-setting way.
“If you see us, everybody’s got their own handshake,” James said. “Coach Milo’s got a handshake with every player. So, he’s really into it.”
The 55-year-old Milus looks at it as an opportunity to generate energy before his unit gets into any sort of drill work. He wants his players to enter practice with a positive mindset.
Milus also has a plan to maintain that enthusiasm throughout the course of the day.
“I know one thing that we talked about when I first got here is that, ‘If we get an interception at practice, everyone’s coming off the sideline – including the coach,’” he said.
You practice how you play. The group celebrations that fans see in the end zone during games are simulated during the week. What started with just the defensive backs has morphed into other position groups – even quarterback Philip Rivers – getting into the mix.
Milus likened it to the Golden State Warriors. Once Steph Curry hits a three, Klay Thompson’s going to want to do the same. The momentum starts to roll, and then Draymond Green drains a three-ball. The onslaught becomes too much for the opposition to handle.
Threes are INTs in the NFL. Milus wants his players to think about what they’re going to do when they pick the quarterback. He wants to see the ball.
“At the end of the day, what are we here to do? We’re here to try to intercept the ball – JackBoyz – and it’s hard to do, so we need to celebrate our accomplishments.”
“I know one thing that we talked about when I first got here is that, ‘If we get an interception at practice, everyone’s coming off the sideline – including the coach.’”
Safety Rayshawn Jenkins knew his technique was perfect during the first day of organized team activities, yet he still heard it from his coach.
“Bend your knees! Bend your knees!”
“I know he’s just trying to keep me connected to my vision,” said Jenkins of Milus. “That’s kind of cool to have a coach like that.”
Milus’ mission is to create a relationship with his players that includes a simple understanding: He has their best interests at heart. That may include some blunt coaching.
Every player reacts differently. Milus explained some guys need more prodding, while others would benefit more with an arm on the shoulder coming off the field.
Davis is an example of a player who’s reacted positively to the tough love, though it may not have started that way. As a rookie, Davis would get into a funk when Milus got on him. Fast forward to season three, and Milus believes Davis has improved as much as anybody due to a work ethic that matches his height, weight and speed.
Davis and Williams didn’t hear their names called on draft day, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t play. Milus pointed specifically to Williams as a player who went from an unknown to a 15-game starter in 2017.
To reach that tipping point of his pro career, Williams had to put his trust in Milus.
“He’s going to keep you disciplined, keep you at it and just make sure you’re doing all the little things,” Williams said. “He’s very particular in what he wants, but it helps us have pride in ourselves and in our game, and at the end of the day, we all want the same outcome.”
Even the elite are nudged to greater heights. James was a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl starter his rookie season. Milus sees more, and James is appreciative.
“He’s meant a lot to me,” James said. “We go at it a lot, and he challenges me and pushes me. He doesn’t let me settle for being average.”
“I know he’s just trying to keep me connected to my vision. That’s kind of cool to have a coach like that.”
Third-year cornerback Desmond King is more than comfortable paying it forward.
Last week, Milus said King was on the field instructing UDFAs on how to play the nickel position. It goes back to what Head Coach Anthony Lynn said Monday about coaching the veterans to coach the rookies.
“That’s exactly how we get better,” Milus said.
King is climbing the ladder to a leadership role, but Milus named three players who currently fill that on-field position: James, Phillips and Hayward.
Entering his fourth season with the Chargers, Hayward has started 46 games and collected a team-high 11 interceptions. Milus calls him the galvanizing presence of the group.
Then there’s Phillips, another undrafted free agent who’s fought adversity to propel himself into an impact contributor. According to Milus, Phillips is the walking definition of preparation.
Williams recalled when Milus would use Phillips as an example of what a bubble player can ultimately become.
“I always remember during our rookie minicamps, he always talks about the older guys,” Williams said. “He always talks about Adrian Phillips. He would always just say, ‘We don’t know who’s going to make the team, but it’s going to be somebody in the secondary. It’s going to be somebody in our room.’”
Finally, Milus is counting on James to be even more of a leader in 2019. He describes the second-year safety as someone who “loves practice” and “practices the right way.”
The 22-year-old has embraced the added responsibility, something his position coach has taken note of.
“Derwin has grown so much in this last year,” Milus said. “He feels comfortable. He’ll mention to a guy who’s maybe a five- or six-year pro, ‘Hey, that’s not up to our standard.’ And I think that’s important, too.”
Each Thursday during the regular season, a member of the secondary is tasked with catering in food for the group when they watch film.
“Go back when you sat with your family on Sundays and you broke bread with your family on Sundays,” Milus said. “Everybody had to be there and that was a time for your family to get closer.”
Milus described the weekly sessions as less barking and more collaboration. It’s a laid-back environment where players can exchange ideas and build bonds that extend into the offseason.
“They’ll take DB trips together, just little things like that just to bring the group closer together,” Milus said.
Thursdays included, Milus said he walks into Hoag Performance Center every day with a smile on his face. There’s never a moment of dread when the DBs room opens; he’s in charge of a group of men who want what’s best for the team and each other.
Their sacrifice and willingness to be coached, all while maintaining a level of vigor that’s felt throughout the building may sound like it’s above and beyond.
It’s not, though. It’s what’s required under Milus – the price of admission into the JackBoyz.
“It’s bigger than just football,” James said. “It’s really like a family.”