Three weeks ago, at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Jeff Heuerman was asked to explain how critical it was for Ohio State to keep star quarterback Braxton Miller healthy. His answer?
“How important is it for Cleveland to keep LeBron healthy?”
OK, got it. But, uh, what happens you fail to do that?
“It’s obviously a blow, but it’s part of the game,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said Wednesday. “Sometimes, you’re gonna lose guys to injuries and I think everyone who plays understands that.”
That’s real, sure. But did you really expect to lose Miller? With less than two weeks before the season opener? To a season-ending shoulder injury? The same one he had “minor, outpatient” surgery on in February to repair damage sustained against Clemson in the Orange Bowl?
“Not really honestly,” Heuerman said.
“We threw a lot in the middle of July, end of July. We were in (the Woody Hayes Athletic Center) throwing it a lot. He was whipping it around fine. It was kind of one of those fluke injuries you got to deal with, but I never expected this.”
Of course not. Nobody did.
“It’s not how you draw it up,” he said, “but it happens and you gotta move on.”
So Ohio State transitioned officially into uncharted territory Wednesday morning – life without Braxton Miller for an entire season.
Outside looking in, the perception is the Buckeyes are no longer a viable playoff contender without Miller, a new-look offense already charged with replacing four offensive lineman, Carlos Hyde, Corey “Philly” Brown, and a bad pass defense that underwent an “overhaul” in the offseason after it caused the team’s undoing last year.
It’s why, all of the sudden, games against Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in the first month of the season could get interesting. And what about Big Ten play? Can they really challenge Michigan State and whoever for a Big Ten title with that many questions hanging over it? Is Ohio State out of the national picture?
“You know the answer to that,” head coach Urban Meyer, who’d probably rather touch a poisonous snake than that question, said. “Got practice 21 tomorrow and I still like our team. After today’s practice, I really, really like our team.”
That’s a pretty standard answer from Meyer, who prefers to publicly dwell in the here and now and shoot down big-picture questions like they were incoming missiles.
“One thing that our team’s been pretty good at, and I’ve gotten better at, just worry about the moment,” he said.
For the Buckeyes, it’s preparing redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett – who hasn’t played a down of college football yet – to fill Miller’s massive shoes. It’s getting an offense with so many moving parts in position to gel once the season rolls around in, oh, nine days.
The moment also means that talent – a lot of it – is supposedly brimming on both sides of the ball. Ohio State says it’s got a new cache of offensive weapons that hasn’t existed the past two seasons. Names like Dontre Wilson, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Corey Smith haven’t been necessarily shy about how they think think they’ll contribute to an offense that was among the nation’s best last season. It minimizes the need for Barrett to be Miller.
“The good thing is the pieces around him, I don’t want to give up too much of it, but I’m hoping he can throw some short balls and they turn into long gains,” Meyer said. “We haven’t had much of that around here.”
On defense, Ohio State should have one of the nation’s best defensive lines, the linebackers are supposedly the best they’ve been in three seasons and the back end has fully-bought into a plan laid out by co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash.
Days removed from a “devastating” afternoon at practice Monday, a sincere level of optimism abounds around the team. And until proven otherwise, the Buckeyes can still be a contender without Miller.
To be sure, losing one of the best players in the country could cripple Ohio State and Barrett, for as much as Meyer and his teammates will gush over him, he’s no Miller. Not even close. Meyer knows that. So he’s going to do his best to field an offense tailored to Barrett’s skill set as a “distributor.” Meanwhile, the Buckeyes aren’t going to bag the season.
“We’ll bounce back, it’s not the end of the world. We’re not gonna forfeit any games, you’re not gonna just quit,” Heuerman said. “We’ve been through adversity before, it’s just another stepping stone. We’ll get through it.”
A stepping stone? More like a boulder.
Still, writing Ohio State off before it plays a game is as silly as acting like Barrett can replace Miller without as much as a hiccup.
"It's all to be determined," Meyer said.
With or without Miller, a team like Ohio State's got the talent to win it all any given year. But as long as he's in a sling, its chances of doing so takes a major hit.