COLUMBUS — A day after a bombshell diagnosis threatened to detour Ohio State’s national title hopes, coach Urban Meyer gave his team a resounding passing grade.
“It’s hard to say that wasn’t maybe the best practice we’ve had since our staff has come to Ohio State,” he said after the first of two workouts Wednesday.
As for the actual passing game, that remains an outsized question. Yet the Buckeyes are pining to show there is life after Braxton Miller — and it isn’t so bad.
Speaking with reporters for the first time since their star quarterback was ruled out for the season with a torn labrum, players were hardly resizing their expectations.
“We’ll bounce back,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “It’s not the end of the world. You’re not going to forfeit any games. You’re not just going to quit. We’ve been through adversity before.”
Still, Meyer called the Buckeyes’ response a “huge test.”
Their season veered wildly Monday when Miller, the two-time Big Ten MVP and annual Heisman contender, collapsed in pain after throwing a seven-yard pass during practice.
Meyer recalled initially going “berserk.” He had not seen the play and figured a defender had hit Miller. As it turned out, Miller was untouched. His right shoulder simply gave out, having never fully healed from surgery in February for a partially torn labrum.
Heuerman said he had never seen Miller in so much pain.
“We knew it wasn’t good,” cornerback Doran Grant said.
On Tuesday, the fears were confirmed. Miller will miss at least nine months, though Meyer said the precedent of similar injuries to NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees and Sam Bradford suggests the senior will need a full year to recover. Miller plans to redshirt this season and return for a final year next fall.
Meyer called the injury “devastating.”
“In my heart, I believed that he would be ready to go in the summer,” he said. “Everything seemed to be on course. We’re not allowed to watch our kids throw [in the summer], but every day I’d ask, ‘How’d he do?’ and he was throwing the ball really well in July. And then this happened. Did I have any thought that this could happen? No.”
In the aftermath, it was easy to cast aside Ohio State as a national contender.
The Miller effect was sweeping: The Buckeyes’ national championship odds plunged as low as 50-1, the secondary ticket market readjusted — a SeatGeek spokesman said the average online resale price for OSU home games dropped 10 percent since Monday — and analysts predicted a shift in the balance of Big Ten power.
“You could argue Braxton Miller is as important to his team as any player in the sport of college football in 2014,” ESPN analyst and former OSU quarterback Kirk Herbstreit said.
“How important is it for Cleveland to keep LeBron [James] healthy?” Heuerman said at Big Ten media days last month, referring to the Cavaliers’ superstar.
On Wednesday, Heuerman smiled when reminded of the comparison.
“We’re not naive to the situation,” he said. “We understand what happened and what we lost. But just like the Cavs, if LeBron is out, you don’t put them out, do you? They’ve got a lot of other playmakers.
“That’s the situation we’re in. We’ve got a lot of playmakers, and we’re going to have to rely on them.”
Meyer, meanwhile, said expectations remain unchanged. Ohio State may have more heralded talent than every team on its schedule, and coaches believe redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett is a capable facilitator of it.
If not nearly as physically gifted as Miller — Meyer estimates his absence is worth about 100 yards per game — the 6-foot-1, 225-pound dual threat is touted as a bright, steadying presence. Barrett will be expected to direct the offense, not carry it like Miller had to at times — particularly in 2012.
Like former backup quarterback Kenny Guiton, Meyer said Barrett is adept at “getting the ball out quickly and distributing to playmakers,” of which OSU believes it finally has plenty. Options this year include burners such as sophomore Dontre Wilson, redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall, and freshman Curtis Samuel.
So how does the offense change under Barrett?
“That’s why we go sit in a room and look at each other for 10 hours a day,” Meyer said. “You figure out what pieces that you have. The good thing is, the pieces around [Barrett] are ... I don’t want to give them too much credit, but I hope we can throw some short balls that turn into long gains. We haven’t had much of that around here.”
Barrett should also benefit from his familiarity with that supporting cast. With Miller limited, Meyer said Barrett has made about 300 live throws with the first-team offense during preseason camp. Guiton, by comparison, made six throws with the first team last year.
Meyer expects the injury to Miller to be a rallying point.
“I still like our team,” Meyer said. “After today’s practice, I mean, really, really like this team.”
A SCARLET LEGACY: Jim Shumaker, a retired engineer featured in The Blade’s story Sunday about the biggest Ohio State fans in northwest Ohio, died on Tuesday at his home in Fostoria. He was 82.
Shumaker, a lifelong fan who exhaustively remodeled his basement several years ago into an Ohio State shrine, said the Buckeyes helped provide a diversion as he battled cancer the past three years. He hoped to live long enough to watch OSU’s season opener Aug. 30 against Navy. But in an interview last week, Shumaker said he was at peace.
“I think I’ll have to watch it from heaven,” he said.