The idea of switching to wide receiver first came to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller in April, when he discussed it with strength coach Mickey Marotti. In May, he brought up the possibility to coach Urban Meyer and the two began watching film of star wide receivers together. Later that month, Miller began sneaking on the practice field at night to catch balls from quarterback J.T. Barrett. Miller kept the potential switch from quarterback to receiver secret, a fallback plan in case he couldn’t return fully healthy to playing quarterback after two shoulder surgeries, the latter which caused him to miss all of last season.
Miller’s fallback plan has become a reality, as he told SI.com on Thursday night that he plans to start the 2015 season playing H-Back—a hybrid receiver position—for the Buckeyes. Miller hasn’t completely closed the door on playing quarterback, as he estimates that he’ll spend 80% of the time during training camp at receiver and 20% with the quarterbacks. But Miller said with more than two months until he’ll be completely healthy at quarterback, he’s approaching this season as primarily a wide receiver.
“For the most part, it’s going to be H-Back and punt return,” Miller said in a phone interview on Thursday night. “It’s a long process to get back totally to throwing and throwing every day. This is the smarter thing for right now, God blessed me with a lot of talent and different opportunities. I’m going to have fun with that and still score a lot of touchdowns and help the team out and be dominant at that.”
The move strengthens the loaded Buckeyes, who were already the runaway favorites to repeat as national champions. It also puts a player who calls himself “the best athlete in college football” in a position to make plays in space, long a hallmark of Meyer’s offenses. Miller’s father, Kevin, said Meyer sees Braxton Miller as a versatile and explosive player in the mold of former Florida star Percy Harvin. Miller’s position switch also alleviates one-third of the quarterback controversy looming for the defending national champion Buckeyes, as it’s now a two-man race between redshirt junior Cardale Jones and redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett. Miller’s switch gives the Buckeyes a little more offensive spice.
“It’s going to be electric,” Miller said. “We had a great season last year, but we didn’t see anyone do off-the-wall type stuff. I’m sure guys miss seeing an explosive, 60-yard shake-and-bake run every once in a while.”
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The move has sent a surge of adrenaline through the Ohio State staff, as the Buckeyes are giddy at the possibility of Miller doing more than just catch conventional passes. From H-Back, he can also take pitches, shovel passes, catch bubble screens and even throw the ball on trick plays. While there’s been an adjustment period for Miller, there’s little concern overall about his ability to change over. Miller knows the receiver plays cold from his time as a quarterback and he’s shown a natural ability to catch the ball and also return punts.
“Braxton Miller can play wide receiver as long as he wants to play it,” says Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith. “His speed, strength, talent, commitment and, really, lifestyle will allow him to be like Joey Galloway. It’s going to be a matter of how quickly he grows into the position, but the sky is the limit for him.”
Galloway, of course, is the former OSU wide receiver who played 16 seasons in the NFL. He’s one of the receivers that Miller has been studying intently on film; he’s also watched a lot of DeVier Posey, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham and Cris Carter. Miller said that he’s spent four hours a day watching film and catching passes from Barrett, Cardale Jones and a JUGS machine. “At first it was an awkward feeling,” he said. “But for the past eight weeks I’ve been on top of things.”
Miller sounded giddiest on the phone when he talked about the opportunity to return punts, something he hasn’t done since middle school. (His high school coach didn’t want to risk injury.) He said he’s studied Tavon Austin and Devin Hester to pick up the nuances of their return games. Smith, who is in charge of OSU’s punt return, said he has pondered using both Miller and Jalin Marshall, who finished No. 9 in the country in punt return average last season (11.8), in tandem on punt returns. Miller is excited for the new role. “That’s fun, too, man,” Miller said. “Be confident catching the ball, make sure your surroundings are perfect. Make one guy miss and you’re gone.”
During 2012 and ’13 Miller emerged as one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation, finishing in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting in both seasons. His best asset may be his first step, as Miller burst out of the pocket with such force that he actually struggled to run option plays because tailbacks couldn’t keep up with him.
Miller’s two labrum injuries in his throwing shoulder have left him short of 100%, as he estimates between two and two-and-a-half months until his shoulder is fully healed. He missed the entire 2014 season after injuring the shoulder in the Orange Bowl following the ’13 campaign. Miller reinjured the shoulder in mid-August and underwent another surgery.
The 6’2”, 215-pound Miller will give Ohio State an added weapon to a receiving corps that is already one of the most talented groups on the Buckeyes’ roster, led by Marshall and junior Mike Thomas. The options will give Ohio State a surplus of speed, along with burners in junior Dontre Wilson and sophomore Curtis Samuel, who moved over from tailback this spring.
Smith expects a smooth transition. He said that Miller is already as well versed in the playbook as any of the receivers, as he’s needed to have a mastery of the route concepts from throwing to them at quarterbacks. While the OSU coaches are drawing up new plays to feature Miller, they’ll be no limit on how much he’s expected to absorb and perform this season. “Just think about it,” Smith said. “A lot of stuff with coverage identification and pass concepts, I’m trying to teach my (receivers) up to quarterback standard, which he’s already been taught.”
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Miller has been locked in on receiver for nearly three months, but he asked Meyer to keep the potential switch quiet until the injury issue solved itself. Miller said less than five of his teammates knew definitively. But the sneaking around the OSU facility is over. Miller will line up as an H-Back against Virginia Tech on Sept. 7. As for the NFL Draft in 2016, Miller said he wants to be considered an athlete than can play both positions. Primarily, though, that will be receiver for the Buckeyes this season.
“I want to be the best at what I do,” Miller said. “Don’t look back. Keep looking forward. I appreciate everyone who supported me and was there for me form when I had surgery until now. I’m ready to put on that Scarlet and Grey and make some highlights.”
Ohio State's biggest obstacle this season isn't QB
Sports Illustrated's Lindsay Schnell, Pete Thamel and Brian Hamilton discuss the biggest questions facing the Ohio State Buckeyes heading into the 2015 season.