Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is looking to Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller to be his team's leader, knowing as Miller goes, so do the Buckeyes.
Long before Urban Meyer even thought about becoming the head football coach at Ohio State, he started to admire Braxton Miller’s potential.
He was a college football analyst for ESPN working an Ohio State game. Meyer gushed about Miller then as the quarterback handled, essentially, a lost season with an interim head coach, while Meyer cooled his jets in ESPN’s broadcast booth.
Now in his second year working with the junior quarterback, Meyer has grown more fond of Miller. The two have hitched their wagons to one another as they prepare for the season to open Saturday at noon when Buffalo visits Ohio Stadium.
Meyer needs Miller to progress this year into more than a running quarterback; and Miller needs Meyer to lead the Buckeyes to a Big Ten championship game and then an appearance in either the Rose Bowl or BCS National Championship. It is the only way to top last year’s 12-0 season amid an NCAA bowl ban.
Meyer isn’t always the most objective person when it comes to evaluating Miller.
“I love Braxton Miller,” Meyer said. “He and Tom Herman (offensive coordinator) have something special going on right now. You can see it on the field.
“He’s a different guy. He’s never been a bad guy, always been great. Now he has a little confidence in him.”
Regular practice observers have noted Miller’s improvement, particularly in the passing game. He appeared more accurate with intermediate passing routes during one practice open to the media this month.
THROUGH KEHRES’ EYES
In order to get a better evaluation, from a coach who doesn’t chest bump Miller on a daily basis, Meyer brought in a trusted source.
He reached out to an old friend to come watch practice and evaluate Miller. He went to former Mount Union football coach Larry Kehres. Meyer can talk all he wants about how Miller’s mechanics have improved. Kehres gave him an objective opinion.
“The man knows a lot of football,” Meyer said. “He commented to me about how comfortable Braxton looked in the pocket and his mechanics. Braxton has worked very hard.”
One of the things Kehres noticed about Miller was his leadership. It has been an area of concern for both Herman and Meyer. Not that Miller cannot lead, but his laid-back personality isn’t typical of an alpha-male major college quarterback.
“I wouldn’t call them intangibles because I think you can see those things,” Kehres said. “He was getting (after) the entire group of 10 other offensive players when they’re trying to play at a faster tempo. They had a player get dinged on a play and (Miller) was the first player to respond to that. That’s what you want your leader to do. He practices with a quiet confidence that most leaders have.”
Page 2 of 5 - Miller’s mechanics last season were a mess. Herman and Meyer both knew they had a special player in Miller when they took over the offense, but they had no idea how bad Miller’s footwork was.
“I felt like last year was a D-plus,” Miller said. “This year, we’ve worked on the whole offense and getting situated. It’s unbelievable how far I’ve come from last year.”
Herman drilled him all season. Miller worked on it ad naseum this summer.
“I think he’s making great strides,” Kehres said. “In high school, he was a very good quarterback and a good passer. He seemed to be getting better and better as an accurate passer and a fundamentally sound passer. His feet were set and the ball was delivered on time and on target to the receiver.”
‘BETTER THAN HE WAS’
A year ago, Miller was the team’s best player on offense and, until the last half of the season, really the only weapon Meyer had. Because most everyone in the huddle didn’t either understand or trust the new scheme, Ohio State’s offense was nothing more than a pro-style scheme with some single-wing, direct snap to the quarterback. That’s not exactly revolutionary. It’s old fashioned.
But Ohio State did what it had to do to get the ball in Miller’s hands.
“I’m embarrassed to say this, but we weren’t ready (last year),” Meyer said of Miller’s understanding of the position. “Now, he knows the offense.”
If there is one person who can analyze and evaluate Miller’s progress it is Herman. He is a member of MENSA, an organization for people with IQ scores in the top 2 percent.
“I’m not saying he is a finished product by any stretch of the imagination,” Herman said. “It does make coming to work a lot easier that he is progressing the way he is.
“I don’t know how to quantify this. He is head and shoulders better than he was. He is further ahead. His grasp of what we’re trying to do offensively, as well as mechanics — I do know this: I sleep a lot better this year than I did last year.”
Miller ran for 1,2171 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2012. He threw for 2,039 yards with 15 TDs and six interceptions. Miller’s 3,310 total yards last season was 65 percent of Ohio State’s offense.
It is no wonder Miller is the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, above last year’s winner, Johnny Manziel, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers. Many players buckle under the pressure of Heisman-worthy performances each week. Miller’s pulse doesn’t seem to rise when talking about it.
Page 3 of 5 - Surrounding by about 80 reporters, Miller was asked about coping with the media pressure of a Heisman campaign and the expectations of the 2013 season after going 12-0.
“Y’all are my friends,” Miller said, staring at two dozen cameras. “We’re all good. I’m humble and I go about my day as a normal guy outside of football.”
It is always the stuff away from the football field that tangles a star player. Look at Manziel’s offseason. As much as Manziel seemed to like the limelight, Miller, for now, tries to walk outside of it.
“I’m trying to stay away from all that stuff,” Miller said of the Manziel stories. “I’m the same guy. Just humble. I keep it level-headed and go about my business when I go on the field.”
As important as his footwork, is his leadership. Herman and Meyer want a quarterback who takes command of the huddle. They want a player the other 10 can look to during a game and know he’s in charge.
That wasn’t Miller’s personality last season. With Miller, either Buckeye coaches have to bring out qualities they believe are there, or they have to make Miller be someone he isn’t.
“You have honest direct conversations with him,” Herman said. “You say this is what we need from you. I’m not asking you to be somebody you’re not, but I’m asking you to go to the limits in this area of what’s inside you. I don’t want it to be fake, or like you’re trying to be someone else. Just be the best you in this area that you can be.
“We’re still working on it.”
Plenty of Miller’s teammates have noticed his improvements, both in and outside the huddle. He is taking charge in the huddle.
“Braxton got us organized in the summer,” said receiver Devin Smith, a former Massillon star. “He took control of it and said we were gonna throw, and when we were gonna throw and where.”
But Herman has been careful not to make Miller feel like he’s fitting a square peg into a round hole. One of the teaching tools Herman and Meyer used with Miller was to watch Jon Gruden’s quarterback camp videos. It was a chance for Miller to see how other quarterbacks accept leadership.
The theory being, like anything, to be a good leader study other good leaders.
“There’s many different ways to lead,” Herman said. “I don’t think you have to be a rah-rah guy and fire up the troops to win one for the Gipper. You have to be a leader. There is no doubt in my mind the quarterback has to be one of the main leaders on the team. Now, how he does it? There’s a thousand different ways to skin that cat.”
Page 4 of 5 - Miller has never been comfortable in front of the media. He was better, but not pure and smooth, in front of reporters at the Big Ten media days. He is starting to accept the role of speaking to the media. He speaks in short sentences that don’t really lend to colorful writing.
Honestly, Herman said, Miller never understood why the media cared what he had to say. But he is accepting the fact that the QB at Ohio State carries weight.
“He doesn’t understand ... because his view is I came here to play football because I love football,” Herman said. “It’s mind boggling to him why anybody would care what he had to say. I think he’s flattered by it.”
NEED A LEADER
Miller gets that he’s fun to watch. He understands he can dazzle 100,000-plus in Ohio Stadium.
“I think the fact they care what’s in his brain, what he thinks about or what he has for breakfast ... quite frankly, it’s something I haven’t gotten completely comfortable with,” Herman said.
What Miller eats for breakfast isn’t important. How he sets the table for his teammates, however, is. Miller will get his first big test of the season on the road in the third week against California. The offense — the one Meyer ran in Florida and elsewhere to move up the coaching ladder — is completely available. There are weapons, speed and an understanding of the scheme.
Still, his coaches and his teammates want a leader, silent or otherwise. They need someone to lead. It was John Simon on defense who provided it last year.
Might Miller be that player this year?
“I call it the most unique position in sports,” Meyer said of quarterback. “You’re allowed to be a little introverted, but you have to be able to lead. I don’t want to give him an ‘A,’ but he’s pushing ‘A’ work. When our offense struggled in a scrimmage, he started to manage it. He’s grown in that respect.”
OSU’s season is pinned mostly on Miller’s shoulders. But he shouldn’t have to do it all this year. He should have hungry weapons around him. Running backs have points to prove. Receivers seem to be continually pushed by the head coach to be better.
During the whole thing, Ohio State will be chasing championships and a media spotlight on its unbeaten streak. And then there’s the Heisman thing.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Miller said of the Heisman Trophy. “But I have 10 other guys on the field with me. I want to make them better. We can go farther in the Big Ten. I want to be the leader I can be.”
Page 5 of 5 - Reach Todd at 330-580-8340 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @tporterREP