Miller's Health More Important Than Ever For Ohio State
By Matt Natali
As Braxton Miller goes, so goes Ohio State.
So it was no surprise when the senior quarterback was the focal point of attention when the Big Ten Conference kicked off its annual Media Days event in Chicago on Monday.
Prior to his media obligations on Monday, Miller was named to the Big Ten’s fourth annual Preseason Players to Watch list, adding to his already-impressive list of conference awards collected during his collegiate career. Miller earned the Big Ten’s Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 for the second consecutive season, as well as the Griese-Brees award as the top quarterback in the conference.
He is the first player in conference history to earn the awards in consecutive seasons and is once again in the Heisman Trophy discussion as a preseason 7/1 odds favorite, according to the Bovada sports book.
And the Heisman is certainly a goal for Miller. He walks past the iconic trophies of Ohio State Heisman winners past in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, including Archie Griffin, Eddie George, and Troy Smith.
"I think to myself, ‘I’ve got to get it,’ Miller told Bucknuts.com. "I’m going to do whatever it takes. I just listen to what Coach Meyer and (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom) Herman tell me to do.”
To earn the honor as the top college football player in the country, Miller must stay healthy — a task he has struggled with since his high school days.
Miller has missed time in all three of his seasons at Ohio State. Most recently, he sat out the entirety of spring practice resulting from a shoulder injury suffered in Ohio State's Orange Bowl loss to Clemson in January. After shoulder surgery in February, Miller worked with the coaching staff to work on the mental aspects of his game.
“That was probably exactly what I needed, learning the game from the shoulders up,” Miller said. “Just learning from the defensive coaches and stand back and look at how practice is without even practicing. It helped a lot.
“My understanding of the game has improved a lot. I can recognize defenses better and as quick as possible. I want to recognize what they’re in less than two seconds.”
While refining his mental approach to the game, Miller rehabbed his shoulder. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer gave a positive report on Miller's health on Monday.
“He is ready to go," Meyer said in a press release from the Big Ten. "He's full speed, in the best shape of his life.”
This is all good news for Miller, but the Scarlet and Gray elephant in the room is that Ohio State only has one starter returning to the offensive line this season in junior tackle Taylor Decker.
Naturally, assembling a new line to protect his star quarterback is Meyer’s biggest concern.
“(Of) the two areas that concern (us), the offensive line is number one,” he said. “(We are) a little disappointed what happened in spring. We just didn't see the growth that we would like to see. However, I really admire our (co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed) Warinner, and I know we have good players. So they've had a very good summer.”
Ohio State also lost 1,500-yard rusher Carlos Hyde to the NFL. Considering there will be limited experience in the Ohio State backfield and Miller’s affinity for running the ball, it appears there is even more pressure on Miller to create plays on the ground when the offense breaks down.
But Miller has confidence in his abilities, his teammates, and is not preoccupied with suffering another injury.
“No, it’s not in the back of my mind,” he said. “I just go out there and play football and that’s part of the game. You never know what to expect in a game from an injury standpoint, but I can be smarter about things — getting down when I’m running and taking less hits. But I’m a competitor and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to win while you’re out there.
“And I’ve got a lot of guys around me that are going to make plays. So it’s going to be fun.”
Having suffered through several injuries of his during his collegiate career, Meyer addressed a perceived lack of durability with Miller.
“Do we try to slow Braxton down? Absolutely not,” Meyer said. “We try to protect him, surround him and maybe come up with a good scheme to get the ball out of his hands maybe a little quicker. Those are all the things that we address.
“But the durability issue isn't because his body wasn't meant to play college football. It's because of how hard he plays. And you can look around the country, and (there are) guys, you know who they are. Every program's got a couple of those guys that play just so darned hard that sometimes things happen.
Unfortunately, if Miller does fall victim to another injury this season, Ohio State no longer has the luxury of Kenny Guiton to step in under center in a back-up role. Last season, Guiton led the Buckeyes to three victories when Miller was sidelined with a knee injury. The former fifth-year senior did so with flare, too, earning back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the week awards and the Walter Camp national offensive player of the week for his performance against Cal.
This season, third-year sophomore Cardale Jones will fill the back-up role. Jones saw time in three games last season in mop-up duties but earned Meyer’s confidence as a viable back-up quarterback this spring..
Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett falls in line as the third quarterback on the depth chart. He was Meyer’s first quarterback recruit at Ohio State and was considered one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback prospects in the 2013 recruiting class. However, Barrett’s redshirt status last season stemmed from a torn ACL suffered during his high school senior season.
Adding to Ohio State's major losses on the offensive line, inexperience in the backfield, and a shallow depth chart at quarterback, there is also a perceived “toughness” in the newly aligned Big Ten East Division. The new East Division includes Ohio State traditional rivals Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, as well as, Inadiana and newcomers Maryland and Rutgers.
“I think it's one of the toughest divisions in college football,” Meyer said. “Once again, you just have to look at the recruiting that takes place at the schools and then the style of defense and offense. It's a rugged conference.
“So all those comments that you said the other coaches were making, I see it, and we're going to do our best to be prepared for it.”
Preparation in those depleted areas on offense will be pivotal this season to ensure Miller stays healthy. With Big Ten title aspirations and hopes of qualifying for the new College Football Playoff to compete for a national championship, Ohio State will need Miller to stay healthy and on the field to remain in the hunt.