COLUMBUS — A pair of Sharpie-wielding, middle-aged men stood in wait on a downtown Chicago sidewalk one night last month when suddenly they spotted their target.
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“It’s Braxton!” one shouted as the star of Big Ten media days pulled up to the Hilton.
Braxton Miller, who had just toured the Windy City on a rickshaw with Ohio State teammates Jack Mewhort and Christian Bryant, politely signed for several fans passing by before the hawks pounced. They handed Miller a football and an OSU helmet, then showcased their 10-yard dash times, racing back to bags filled with items from their five or six favorite Big Ten schools to snare more goods for the 20-year-old to sign.
Fortunately for Miller, he deftly avoided the second rush and escaped into the safety of the hotel lobby.
This is the Buckeyes quarterback’s new life in the fishbowl known as the United States.
As second-ranked OSU prepares for its season opener Saturday against Buffalo, an intensifying wave of fame and expectations is putting the introverted star to the test.
Miller is the dynamic motor of a team expected to outperform its perfect 2012 season and contend for a national title, the best hope of a conference scrapping for respect, and the latest national superstar.
The veteran of two Sports Illustrated covers this preseason alone was recently installed as the Heisman Trophy favorite — his 9-2 odds in Las Vegas towering over the 15-1 line given to reigning winner but turmoil-magnet Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. OSU tight end Jeff Heuerman simply smiled and made the famed stiff-armed pose when asked about his expectations for Miller.
So how is Miller handling it all?
“Just keep it humble, level-headed, and stay out of the limelight,” he said.
Isn’t that hard to do?
“No, I don’t think so,” he replied.
But, wait, there are 100 reporters and cameramen around you as you say this.
“You’re all my friends though,” he said with a wide grin. “So you’re all good. I’ll just be humble and go about my day. I’m just a normal guy outside of football.”
In that sense, the Buckeyes can rest easy. OSU coaches believe Miller is naturally suited to handle the kind of hype that has derailed others.
Miller is the anti-Manziel. He is not under NCAA investigation. He has not chilled with Drake, sat courtside at NBA games, gotten kicked out of a rival school’s frat party, ranted on Twitter that he “can’t wait to leave” college, or signed up for an all-online class schedule.
“I’m not aware of what’s all going on with the other guy,” coach Urban Meyer said, “but I like where our guy is right now.”
A year after Miller piled up a school-record 3,310 yards of total offense and was named Big Ten player of the year, the junior is confident he will be the next in a line of quarterbacks to have their second season under Meyer make their first one seem blah.
Miller spent the offseason sanding the rough edges in his mechanics and gained an advanced understanding of the offense. As he put it, “Dang, I know what I’m actually doing,” which in turn has allowed him to evolve as a leader.
Teammates speak of a different Miller this season, of a player who organized voluntary but mandatory offseason workouts with his receivers and speaks up to direct others. Reporters see it, too, the once-closed Miller expanding his answers from one or two words to one or two paragraphs.
“I don't know if he's ever going to be a Tim Tebow or a Drew Brees, a yell-at-you-nonstop, fire-up-the-troops kind of guy,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said of Miller, who recently took a public speaking course at OSU and is one of about 20 players in Meyer’s weekly leadership class. “But I think he has certainly come out of his shell. The biggest reason why we didn't see that last year is because I think the kid said, ‘How can I expect to impose my leadership on my teammates when my own house isn't order?’ ”
On the field, Herman said, “[Miller] is head and shoulders farther ahead. It’s his grasp of what we're trying to do offensively and his mechanics. I sleep a lot easier at night than I did at this time last year.”
Herman said the goal is for Miller to complete 70 percent of his passes this season — a 12 percent jump overall and a mountainous hike from his league-low 48.7 completion percentage on third down. But history suggests it is attainable.
Bowling Green State University’s Josh Harris, Utah’s Alex Smith, and Florida’s Chris Leak and Tim Tebow all leaped forward during their second year in Meyer’s offense. Tebow, who faced the same questions on his next-level ability as a passer that Miller confronts now, completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for another 23 scores in his Heisman-winning sophomore season.
“[Miller] will improve automatically just because he’s now been in the system for more than one year,” Harris said.
Herman said he is on board with Miller’s stated desire to throw 30 times a game — an average of eight more passes than last year.
“As we look at a breakdown of who we are and what our personality is, we're still going to be a run-first team to set up the play-action pass and the first-down dropback screens, the quick-relief plays,” Herman said. “Everything's going to start off the run game. But with 75 snaps on average, you'd like to be around 30 attempts.”
That’s the kind of faith the Buckeyes have in Miller, once a preternatural but limited run-first talent and now perhaps the full package.
“I’ve got to be careful because I just glow on him,” Meyer said. “I love Braxton Miller. Him and Tom Herman have something really special going right now. You can see it on the field. You can see his maturity. ... You see the RG3s, the Andrew Lucks, the way they handle it. Everybody watches the quarterback. It’s the most unique position in sports.
“You can be an introvert, but you have to be able to lead. I don’t want to give him an ‘A’ yet, but he’s pushing ‘A’ work.”
If Miller reaches the threshold, big things are certain to follow. A Heisman and a national title? Maybe. A burning limelight and more autographs and adulation? Definitely.
Miller has no plans to change.
“I get approached by all type of fans to take pictures,” he said. “I’m not going to turn down a fan to take a picture. ... That’s the type of person I am. I’m not a self-centered person. It’s just for the fans.”