CHICAGO – The talk wasn’t all related to off-the-field drama at Wednesday’s installment of Big Ten media days. It may have dominated the headlines, but actual football was discussed as well. Some schools, maybe an Illinois or Minnesota, would choose to focus on cute stories about community service or team mottos. At Ohio State, though, it’s all about football.
One year ago, Urban Meyer said he coached the best group of leaders he’s ever been around. He spoke of John Simon in glowing terms, going as far to say that he even questioned his own place on the team because of Simon’s impassioned speech following the Cal game. That same type of leadership has not been spotted yet on the 2013 Buckeyes.
The situation looked so bleak that the football program brought in an outside firm to instill leadership qualities into the players.
“I noticed very average leadership in January,” Meyer said. “I saw a void in leadership, and that’s when we started our process and programs, and even having an outside firm coming in to systemically approach leadership. It’s an uncomfortable position for an 18- or 19-year-old kid to be in. Guys are going to have to step out of their comfort zone.”
When coaches make a call to action, leaders emerge. And as Meyer said, the barrier between the comfort zone and the unknown is shattered. That scenario has taken form with quarterback Braxton Miller.
Dating back to high school, Miller has been the star every time he stepped on a football field. His leadership skills waned, though. Miller has also been popular in the locker room, but he’s soft-spoken and humble. Brashness is not part of his makeup, choosing instead to let on-field production be the memo.
When he speaks to reporters, Miller talks in a hushed tone, sometimes not even audible. But that hard shell is starting to peel off. The off-season has included organized offensive workouts by Miller with some yelling mixed in.
“I’m much more vocal now,” he said. “I’ve been telling them if they run a route short, the two extra yards make a big difference in the throw. I’m not ready to set my feet if you run the route two yards short, so I’ve got to be more vocal and tell the guys.”
It was never an uncommon sight to see Woody Hayes grab a player by the collar or facemask. But the mild-mannered Braxton Miller? An outburst of emotion would be like a spotting a unicorn. Not anymore.
Senior left tackle Jack Mewhort said Miller has taken the Hayes strategy and gotten into teammates faces via the collar grab. Still, Miller remains unpretentious and doesn’t give off the vibe that he’s Jay Cutler part II. Dressed in a classic black and gray suite, Miller looked like a svelte magazine cover boy.
“To be a functional throwing football team, you have to take control of the whole situation. He didn’t do that a year ago.”
“He’s a completely different guy,” Meyer said. “The job of a quarterback, especially in college football, is to organize and take control of the throwing game. The NCAA gives you 20 hours per week. In the off-season you can do everything but throw a football. So he isn’t getting the adequate coaching.
“To be a functional throwing football team, you have to take control of the whole situation. He didn’t do that a year ago. He wasn’t experienced at it. If we are very productive throwing the football, its because of quarterback took charge.”
In Ohio State’s 12-0 season, Miller was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, as he generated over 3,000 yards of offense, 28 touchdowns and completed 58 percent of his passes. It wasn’t always pretty, though. There was improvising and throws with poor mechanics.
“You’ve got to work hard at it,” Miller said. “My fundamentals, just being compact and not getting too excited when I see some guy come open. You’ve just got to be mellow, set your feet and throw the ball.”
Part of Miller’s off-season work included taking a side trip to San Diego to work with quarterback guru George Whitfield. Another Whitfield client is Johnny Manziel. Other than being dynamic quarterbacks, there isn’t much Miller and Manziel have in common.
Miller steers clear of controversy, while Manziel seems to bring it on. The latter also is boisterous, verging on cocky. Until Ohio State’s recent series of mishaps, the entire summer has been dedicated to Johnny Football blunders.
“I don’t like getting in trouble or anything like that, or getting all crazy,” Miller said. “If you ask anyone, I’m just silly and fun to hang out with.”
On the football field, Miller’s new pal is incoming freshman Dontre Wilson. The late addition to the Buckeyes’ recruiting class gives the offense a high-powered running back who can do it all. He fills the hybrid role Meyer has been looking to close since he was hired in November 2011.
Wilson’s standout high school career included yards and touchdowns that mimic videogame numbers.
“He brings a different type of game, definitely,” Miller said. “He just wants to make plays. He says, ‘You throw it low, I’m gonna get it. You throw it high, I’m definitely going to get it.’ He says every chance he gets, he’s going to take it to the end zone. He already knows how to run the routes that we have, so that’s a big plus.”
Regardless, the pressure of a perfect season rests on Miller’s shoulders. After going through growing pains as a freshman, he responded with his first undefeated season, doing so without feeling completely settled in a new offense with a new quarterbacks coach. One year later, Miller has received all the tutoring needed from Meyer and Herman to rightfully be mentioned in the same sentence as the Heisman Trophy.
“I feel so much more comfortable now,” Miller said. “There’s one year under my belt in the same offense. I feel like everybody knows what they’re doing. I take my three steps, I know Devin’s going to be there on an out-cut. I can just place it anywhere and do what I do.”
Said Meyer: “He’s really grown as a quarterback and grown as a leader. Very humble young man that I have a lot of respect for.
“I haven’t seen the ceiling on the wonderful kid. I hope it shows up soon, because when it does it’s going to be fun to watch.”