A Touch of Greatness
Chapter Three of the Braxton Miller Epic Saga Begins Saturday
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It has been almost two years since Braxton Miller’s famous wink.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Ohio State’s young quarterback had stunned the college football world with his game-winning touchdown pass to Devin Smith in the final seconds of Ohio State’s 33-29 victory over Wisconsin. Had the Buckeyes been 7-0 instead of 4-3, it would have been remembered as one of the all-time great heroics in the history of one of college football’s most storied football programs.
Instead, it will be remembered as the first real moment of greatness for dynamic young quarterback out of Huber Heights.
All Miller could do was shrug his shoulders and smile after launching a 40-yard touchdown pass off his back foot after the OSU defense surrendered a double-digit lead in the final four minutes of the game. For the freshman signal caller, it was the biggest play of his life. For Braxton Miller, it was only the beginning.
“We always knew it was there,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said this fall.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“We had seen the guy make some really, really sound, fundamental plays (where) he looked like a million bucks. The problem is I don’t know he was ever truly confident in himself and in the big picture of what he was supposed to do and how he was supposed to do it.”
Certainly not as a freshman two years ago, when Miller was being tutored by interim head coach Luke Fickell, a former defensive lineman, and Nic Siciliano, an inexperienced quarterbacks coach who had taken over for longtime Jim Tressel assistant Joe Daniels.
With Meyer and Herman running the offense last year, Miller looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate at times during his sophomore season. Other times he looked like an athlete playing quarterback, but the bar has been raised significantly for the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year.
“Like everyone on the team he still isn't there yet, but comparing him to the Braxton Miller of last year, it's not even close,” said receivers coach Zach Smith, who also worked with Meyer at Florida.
“Footwork, progression, how he gets the ball out, where the location is, just understanding everything and then his fundamentals of making the throws. It's just on another level.”
Miller hasn’t thrown a bad ball this fall, according to his teammates – “I haven’t seen a pass outside the numbers,” running back Jordan Hall said – but they are not the only ones who have seen a drastic improvement from Ohio State’s quarterback this offseason.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Fundamentally he's a much different player than he was at this time a year ago,” Meyer said Monday during his first media luncheon of the 2013 season.
“Pocket presence, which includes when it breaks down, getting plus yardage, not a very good scrambler – most of his yards last year were on design quarterback runs and maybe a play that got screwed up. He was not a very good scrambler. He's much improved.”
Miller ran for over 1,200 yards and accounted for nearly 30 touchdowns last season. He led the Buckeyes – with a little help from backup Kenny Guiton – to an undefeated 12-0 season, and he is the currently the odds-on favorite to take home the Stiff Army Trophy this fall, at least according to Bovada.lv.
“He's really calm,” Jordan Hall said.
“He started showing emotion towards the end of the season during games, and he showed a lot of emotion in the offseason this year. He'll be able to handle all of the pressure. He had a lot of pressure when he played as a freshman, and he did pretty good.
“He's getting better every year, and this is going to be his best year. I've seen him put all of the work in during the offseason. I saw the improvements in his arm this first week of camp.”
Hearing teammates rave about their quarterback’s offseason improvement is an annual tradition on almost every college campus across the country, but with Miller there really is a sense that he has only scratched the surface of what he might be capable of doing at this level.
As a sophomore, Miller completed over 58 percent of his passes – up from 54 percent as a rookie – but he topped 200 yards in the air only four times last season. Only two of those games were against Big Ten opponents – Indiana and Illinois – and in the two big road tests at the end of the year – Penn State and Wisconsin – Miller completed only 17 of his 37 passes.
Photo by Dan Harker
“He’s head and shoulders better than he was and farther ahead,” Herman said of Miller’s progress this offseason.
“The more he learns, the more fluent he gets. It just kind of snowballs a little bit. He (has developed) tunnel vision, so to speak, in terms of, ‘I know what I’m supposed to do, I’m getting it done and now my mechanics and my fundamentals can flourish a little bit.’”
Miller spent some time in California this offseason working with quarterbacks guru George Whitfield Jr. on his “chaos mechanics,” but the biggest improvement Ohio State’s quarterback has made since the end of last season is his understanding of the offense Meyer brought with him to Columbus.
“Confidence in himself and confidence in what he’s doing,” said Herman, the team’s second-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“We can say all we want to say about his improved mechanics and his improved fundamentals, but I think when the confidence in what he was doing and the plays that were called, and where his eyes needed to be, and the reads he needed to make, and the decisions he needed to make were second nature to him – and very comfortable for him – he has gained a level of confidence that has allowed him to play with much better fundamentals and mechanics.”
Decision-making is often a matter of maturity. Troy Smith didn’t make the same decisions with the football as a sophomore in 2004 as he did as a senior with the Buckeyes in 2006. Where Miller is at now is somewhere in between. He’s only a junior, which would put him at the same place Smith was heading into the 2005 football season. Of course Miller has also been the starting quarterback in Columbus the last two seasons, but he’s just now starting to understand what it takes to be the leader of a football team.
“That's the thing I've noticed most about him, just the leadership and maturity, and fundamentally his play alone, it's obvious that he's matured all around,” said running backs coach Stan Drayton, another of Meyer’s assistants from his days in Gainesville.
“He's grabbing guys by the hand and taking them along; he's more vocal, more excited, and more knowledgeable of the system. He's just a different quarterback right now.”
At that, Miller would probably smile and shrug his shoulders. Maybe even wink, reminding us all there’s a touch of greatness in there every time he steps on the field.