Ohio State's Braxton Miller was pressed into duty last season as a freshman and passed for 1,159 yards. Teammates say the sophomore quarterback became more of a vocal leader during the offseason as he worked with the Buckeyes' wide receivers.
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COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer's earliest thoughts on the prospect of coaching at Ohio State last fall did not concern health or money or nostalgia.
No, the big-picture stuff could wait. He wanted the scoop on Braxton Miller.
Meyer knew firsthand the importance of establishing early momentum with recruits and fans, saying, "If you lose that, it's hard to get it back." If he was to sign on at OSU, he planned to win big in a hurry — and the most important piece was the player directing his spread option offense.
"When I first got the phone call from Ohio State, that's the first thing that popped into my head," Meyer said. "You're dead in the water if you don't have a guy that can play."
He had that guy to launch each of his first three stops as head coach. At Bowling Green, it was Josh Harris, who led the Falcons to consecutive top-25 finishes and became the second player in FBS history to throw for 40 touchdowns and run for 40 touchdowns in his career. Then came future top NFL-draft pick Alex Smith at Utah and Chris Leak, the most valuable player of the 2006 national title game, at Florida.
Is Miller next in line?
Meyer is counting on it.
"He can play," he said.
Meyer has called the 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore the most dynamic athlete he's ever coached at quarterback — a list that also includes Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
"When I just said that, people should go, ‘Whoa,'?" he said. "And he is, really by far. That's how good of an athlete he is."
As Ohio State dumps water on its 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust past to set off on a new era under Meyer this fall, Miller's coming of age will play an outsized role in deciding the outcome of Year One.
A year ago, the dual threat from just outside Dayton dazzled and reminded fans of his youth in equal measure.
Miller rushed for at least 99 yards in four of the Buckeyes' last five regular-season games and displayed the full package against Michigan, throwing for 235 yards and running for 100 in a 40-34 loss.
"It was pretty obvious that Braxton has all the tools," said Harris, who lives in Columbus and remains in touch with Meyer.
But Miller often appeared unsure as a passer and a leader — a player pushed by circumstance into a leading role before his time. On speaking up in a huddle filled with veterans, he said, "I didn't really feel comfortable." The Buckeyes' passing offense ranked 115th nationally.
Now, Miller embraces his role as the face of an offense that appears made for him.
Meyer researched Miller and came to the same conclusion. Miller was bright, an instinctive runner with an explosiveness offensive coordinator Tom Herman calls "off the charts," and more than a one-trick quarterback. Miller threw for 2,167 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Wayne High in Huber Heights, Ohio, and showed flashes last season, including his on-the-run and across-the-body 40-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left in OSU's 33-29 win against Wisconsin.
Meyer was sold. Miller was the guy.
"The one thing about our offense is you can't have a bad quarterback," Meyer said. "That's kind of harsh to say, but the quarterback can't have a bad day or you'll lose. There are some offenses where they take the snap, turn around, and hand the ball off.
"That doesn't happen here. We're going to do a little bit of that this year. We've got some plays in. But there's a lot of time in games where the quarterback has to make a read every play. I don't know if there's any other offense that does that."
The more Meyer saw this spring, the more he liked Miller, especially his demeanor.
"He has a virtue that is relatively nonexistent these days, especially a quarterback at a top-10 program, and that's humility," Meyer said. "He's a very humble guy. It's refreshing to see that. It's good for college football."
Miller was open to remaking himself. The soft-spoken quarterback spent the offseason trying to become a better leader, asking coaches, "How can I influence people on the team?" Teammates noticed a difference as Miller spent the summer rounding up his receivers for daily throwing sessions.
"He was more vocal. He's taking control of the offense, taking control of the wide receivers," senior fullback Zach Boren said. "He never really did that in the past. He was just Braxton Miller out there making plays. He was a little timid at times. Now he's out there, telling guys what to do — ‘We're going to do this, we're going to do that' — and bringing in guys on Sundays."
Miller's next step is becoming a more refined passer. Though Herman praised his quarterback's arm and a "quick, smooth release," he said Miller "still has got a long ways to go." Miller, who completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 1,159 yards last season, needs to improve his accuracy, footwork, and poise in the pocket.
But Meyer believes in Miller the same way he believed in Harris, Smith, and Leak — the Year One quarterbacks who helped him reach this point.
After an offseason where Miller was off limits to contact, Meyer looks forward to releasing what he called his caged tiger. ("I've had very few people that can accelerate like that," Meyer said, "and we've had first-rounders all over the place.") And he is confident enough in Miller's right arm that he is willing to detour from coachspeak and place the weight of the season on it.
An OSU offense that completed only one pass to beat Illinois last season must find new life with Miller and his unproven cast of receivers.
"I hate to say, but our whole season is banked on that," Meyer said. "We have to be able to throw the ball. Think about what we're taking over."
A reporter relayed to Miller the quote. Coach said the season is banked on you.
"He said that?" Miller said.
Uh huh. Your thoughts?
"I'm cool with that," Miller said.
Contact David Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.