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CHICAGO — How important is it for Ohio State to keep Braxton Miller healthy this fall?
Buckeyes tight end Jeff Heuerman laughed.
Oh, wait, the inquisitor was serious?
“How important is it for Cleveland to keep LeBron [James] healthy?” Heuerman said, referring to the Cavaliers superstar. “That's probably answered the same way.”
As the Big Ten’s annual media gathering began Monday, there was no player in the ornate Hilton ballroom more critical to his team than Miller.
The biggest topics were the two-time reigning Big Ten MVP’s return to good health — and keeping it that way.
Miller on Monday spoke of his legacy-shaping senior year, his Heisman dreams, and a right shoulder he declared to be full strength after offseason surgery. Coach Urban Meyer said Miller is “full speed and in the best shape he’s ever been in his life.”
Now comes the hard part: Protecting a dual-threat talent who is so electrifying precisely because of the same unsparing style that makes him prone to injury. With backup Kenny Guiton and All-American running back Carlos Hyde gone as insurance coverage, his value to Ohio State has never been higher.
Asked how much he thinks about preserving Miller, Meyer said, “It’s concern number one.” His biggest questions surround an offensive line that must replace four starters, saying he was a “little disappointed” the spring did not offer more clarity. Junior left tackle Taylor Decker and sophomore guard Pat Elflein are the only two sure starters. The three other spots remain open.
“There's a bunch of concerns you always have,” Meyer said. “It's A through F, A through Z. But number one on the list is is development of that offensive line. Protecting our quarterback is paramount. So that's — I don't want to say that's all our focus — but that's where a lot of our focus is right now.”
Another option is changing the way the game is played — Meyer hinted at fewer quarterback carries — not the way Miller plays the game. Miller said he will try to be smarter about avoiding unnecessary hits, though that is easier said than done.
“I'll be the first to tell you that sometimes someone just isn't meant to play or they're just maybe not tough,” Meyer said. “But Braxton Miller, his issues are he goes sometimes above and beyond what his body is going to allow him to do. ... So do we try to slow Braxton down? Absolutely not. We try to protect him, surround him and maybe come up with a good scheme to get the ball out of his hands a little quicker. Those are all the things that we address. The durability issue isn't because his body wasn't meant to play college football. It's because of how hard he plays.”
For now, Miller, who sat out spring drills after suffering a partially torn labrum in in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, said he has “no worries” about his health. He resumed throwing two months ago and will be ready when the Buckeyes open camp on Monday.
Miller considers this a defining season. He passed for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for another 1,068 yards and 12 scores last season. He already owns nine school records, and played the lead role in Ohio State’s school-record 24-game winning streak. But his biggest goals remain unclaimed: a Big Ten championship, a national title, and, yes, one of those bronze statues that line the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
If Miller stays healthy, he believes all are within reach, the Heisman included.
“Oh, yeah, I walk by them [Heisman trophies] every day,” he said. “Eddie George, Troy Smith, Archie Griffin. ... I think about what I need to do to have that feeling to walk across that podium with a Heisman in my hand. It would be crazy.”