COLUMBUS — Braxton Miller spent his winter vacation at the beach.
Yes, the Ohio State quarterback headed for the California sand to ... fix his throwing mechanics, dodge bean bags, and evade a man chasing him with a broom.
Miller said he wanted to learn from the best. So the sophomore went to work with George Whitfield, Jr. — a 35-year-old Tiffin University graduate whose rise to become one of the nation’s top quarterback gurus is as improbable as his teaching methods are unorthodox.
Although Whitfield’s formal coaching experience is limited to two seasons as a graduate assistant at Iowa and a summer internship with the Indianapolis Colts, many of the sport’s biggest names swear by him.
Clients at his small, San Diego-based academy range from pint-sized middle-schoolers to the past two No. 1 picks in the NFL Draft (Cam Newton, Andrew Luck) and veteran Pro Bowlers (Ben Roethlisberger, Donovan McNabb).
Miller is next in line — and the possibilities tantalize the knighted quarterback whisperer. “His potential is limitless,” Whitfield said.
The mining of it this offseason began only weeks after Ohio State’s year-ending victory against Michigan. With the Buckeyes ineligible for the postseason and players off limits to coaches, Miller and his family reached out to Whitfield in December.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Miller had set a school record for total offense in OSU’s unbeaten season, throwing for more than 2,000 yards and running for 1,273 while climbing to the fringe of contention for a Heisman Trophy. But the player whose pirouetting runs dazzled the country pined to be a more complete quarterback.
Whitfield pledged to help make him one.
One emphasis was to improve Miller’s “chaos mechanics.” So what if the play breaks down and an enemy jersey is hurtling toward him? Instead of bolting at the first whiff of pressure or, worse, taking a sack, he wants it to be second nature for Miller to skirt the defender, keep his eyes downfield, and quickly reset.
During a week at Whitfield Athletix in December, Miller trained in the Pacific Ocean and under aerial assault on land. Drills included Whitfield chucking bean bags or waving a broom — the idea being for Miller to dodge the distractions and stay focused on his receivers.
“We worked on how to evade guys without completely hitting the escape button,” Whitfield said in a phone interview this week. “You can make guys miss by being a matador while keeping your eyes downfield. The whole house isn't on fire, just one room of it is. If you can get out of trouble and set up shop somewhere else, you’re still be in great shape.”
Whitfield also worked with Miller on his touch — “even power pitchers need to have off-speed pitches,” he said — and mechanics, which the quarterback admitted wavered from pass to pass last season. (Per NCAA rule, Miller’s family had to pay for the trip and training sessions.)
"When [Miller] is good, he’s really good, and when he’s bad, he’s bad," OSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman told reporters last week, adding he was "fired up about" Miller’s initiative to see Whitfield. “We need him to be really good more often. His good is really, really stinkin' good, and he just needs to continue working on the consistency of it."
Whitfield compares that search for eternal stinkin’ good to a baseball hitter with a carbon-copy swing.
"The best home run hitters, you could take them from [at-bat to at-bat], overlay the swing, and not see an inch different,” he said. “Your talent can be capped or uncorked by your mechanics.”
It’s a challenge Whitfield has embraced his entire career, dating to Friday nights spent under center in football-mad Massillon, Ohio.
Before his senior season, Whitfield would travel twice a week to Fremont to train with Tom Kiser, an engineer and private quarterback coach whom he met at a Massillon golf outing.
At Division II Tiffin, where he transferred after one season under Jim Tressel at Youngstown State because of a looming position change, former Dragons coach Cam Cruickshank recalled Whitfield as a perfectionist. The barrel-chested Whitfield’s dedication in the weight room made him resemble an “inside linebacker playing quarterback,” Cruickshank said, while he studied his position like a coach. Each Sunday, he visited Kiser with tape of the previous day’s game in tow.
“He was really tough on himself,” said Cruickshank, now interim vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Toledo. “We kind of knew he was going to be someone special.”
After graduating from Tiffin, where he is third on the school’s all-time list in passing yards (4,391) and touchdowns (31), Whitfield spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at Iowa before bouncing around as an Arena League quarterback from 2003 to 2007.
His foray into private instruction came by chance in 2004 when the owners of a San Diego brewing company turned down his application for a marketing position but offered him another job: Instructing their fifth-grade son. Whitfield loved it, and soon his business took off, first at the local level with middle school and high school quarterbacks, then nationally when the Steelers’ Roethlisberger hired him as a personal coach in 2010.
What fascinates Whitfield most is the idea his position is the most egalitarian in sports, that a good quarterback can be built.
“Tackles can’t be built, they’re born. Robo receivers, those guys are born,” he said. "You’re not going to build a running back. The Adrian Petersons are born. They work hard, but there’s some things that are happening in the hospital room the day they arrived. ... Now there are some very gifted quarterbacks who can be born to do other things. If Cam Newton wasn’t a quarterback, he’d still be in the NFL.
"But if Andy Dalton or Kellen Moore wasn’t a quarterback, if Drew Brees wasn’t a quarterback and he didn’t kick or punt, what else is he going to play? Seventh-graders who aren’t very fast, who aren’t very big — maybe you mistake them for a tennis player or golfer — if they have toughness and are passionate about staying it and assessing how they can get better, those are the guys you look out for. It’s not the obvious world-beater. That’s why I love it. ... I’ve got a guy who’s a 5-11 freshman toting around the Heisman Trophy."
That guy was Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M star who indeed captured the Heisman last season.
Whitfield’s latest client presents the best of both worlds: Physically gifted and ready to be assembled. Could Miller be next in line?
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.