It’s been eight years since Ohio State’s season-long starting quarterback was a senior. That year – 2006 – the Buckeyes played for a national championship. Two full classes have come and gone since, as has controversy at the fashionable quarterback position.
Stable is now the apt description. Miller returns to Ohio State after brief flirtations with the NFL – and shoulder surgery – for his fourth season as the starting quarterback. It was Troy Smith who ran roughshod over the competition in 2006, piloting one convincing win after the other and winning the Heisman Trophy by the widest margin ever.
On a recent winter day, Miller was strolling through the halls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, admiring the trophies and names on the wall. One person in particular stuck out.
“I walked past a board the other day and my name is right under Troy Smith,” Miller said. “I texted him, ‘Hey man, check this out. I’m right behind you.’ He said, ‘That’s a good look. Keep it up.’
“I’ve just got to keep putting in work. He’s got the big thing. He went to the [national championship game]. He’s got the Heisman. I’m working towards all that.”
On Wednesday night, two members of Miller’s blockade and two offensive weapons sat inside an Indianapolis hotel pondering their future. Miller could have been with them, conducting final preparations for the most important job interview of their lives – the NFL Combine.
Instead, the Buckeyes’ quarterback was in Columbus accepting the Chicago Tribune Silver Football trophy for the second time in as many years in front of 15,878 adoring fans. In 2014, he’ll go for the three-peat, an act that’s never been accomplished.
“I am incredibly proud of Braxton,” head coach Urban Meyer said in December. “To be one of only four players to win this award twice is a testament to the exceptional young man we have quarterbacking the Buckeyes.”
The most decorated individual in Big Ten football history claims he never seriously considered spurning Ohio State for the NFL. An early-season injury derailed visions of a Heisman Trophy and a loss in the Big Ten Championship Game halted national title ambitions.
In his final season in Columbus, a city where Miller could run for mayor, he’s fully aware of the history that’s in front of him.
“You want to accomplish things that you didn’t accomplish in your first three years,” Miller said. “I feel like I left little things out on the field, and I can achieve all my goals. That’s why I wanted to come back. Getting more polished in the pocket. I think the games changing. From the shoulders up, I need to learn everything.”
He also cited graduation as an ingredient in the decision-making process. But Miller admitted he always knew another year at Ohio State would be the end result. After the Buckeyes’ 24-game win streak turned to mush with consecutive losses to end the season, Miller was faced with a smorgasbord of possibilities involving his future. Once the emotions came back to Earth, a meeting with his family and coaches occurred with a unanimous decision being reached.
“[We] observed everything and made sure I was making the right decision,” Miller said. “It wasn’t too hard of a decision. At first, I was thinking heavy about everything that was going on at the time – Orange Bowl, Big Ten Championship Game, national championship game – but after everything settled down, I made the right decision with Coach [Meyer] and my parents.”
Said Meyer: “Braxton and I have a very good relationship. I told him my opinion that he could become a very high draft pick if he continues to improve, and he said, ‘That’s what I thought.’ It wasn’t much more than that. We met together as a family, had a very positive conversation and made the decision. I gave my opinion as far as how much he could grow as a quarterback.”
Miller’s not shying away from the massive expectations that await. There are three levels of goals the Buckeyes will strive for – the Big Ten title, a berth in the playoff and a national championship. For Miller, there’s also a set of individual honors that would serve as an appropriate sendoff.
The process of rewriting the record book is already underway. Miller is currently Ohio State’s fourth all-time leading rusher, 715 yards behind second-place Eddie George, and the eighth-best passer, 2,256 yards behind leader Art Schlichter. When Miller’s career concludes, his name will appear in nearly every statistical category relating to rushing and passing.
“As improved as he got on the mental side, he can still get a whole lot better,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “He can make the same leap this year and still have work to do. So just the confidence, the studying of the game, studying of defenses and studying of our plays now that we’ve done kind of the same thing two years in a row.”
Freshman seasons are rarely perfect products, and Miller’s first season was no exception. There was a steep learning curve, an old-fashioned offense and lame duck coaching staff. Results were immediate under Meyer and Herman and advanced in Year 2.
Herman explained that he was more proud of Miller’s second Silver Football, though, because Miller’s development as a passer was so great.
“I think he won it the year before because he was the starting quarterback of an undefeated team, played well, made a lot of plays,” Herman said. “But I think this year he won it for being a quarterback. That was important for him and important for us to take the necessary steps to improve offensively. He’s on a really good trajectory of improvement right now, and that makes me proud.”
Miller is coming off consecutive seasons of 2,000 yards passing and a combined 39 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions. Miller’s also rushed for more than 1,000 yards the past two years with 15 touchdowns. The major pieces missing from an otherwise unforgettable career are the Heisman and national championship.
To get there, Miller believes he must get stronger mentally and continue improving his mechanics and ability to read defenses. His passing production dropped off considerably the final month of last season, which contributed to his draft stock plummeting. Miller wouldn’t reveal what grade he received from the NFL Draft’s advisory board, only saying it was “one of the best evaluations you can get.”
The man most responsible for Miller’s continued progression is Herman. He and Meyer’s up-tempo, spread philosophy is perfectly suited for Miller’s skill set, as evidenced by two seasons of rousing success. The third year could yield the ultimate desired results and provide a boost for both Herman and Miller’s aspirations beyond Ohio State.
“He’s got a chance, obviously, when he leaves here to set dang near every school record imaginable, every Big Ten record imaginable and win a championship,” Herman said of Miller. “And then, hopefully, he’ll be a first-round draft pick.
“In my opinion, this was the best thing for him, because he didn’t have anything to lose and everything to gain by coming back. It was very wise.”