Before pondering Braxton Miller's NFL future, appreciate his OSU career
MOBILE, Ala. — Braxton Miller has been studying the Green Bay Packers’ Randall Cobb, and that seems fitting. Cobb started games at quarterback and receiver for Kentucky, and while Cobb didn’t spend three full seasons at quarterback for the Wildcats the way Miller did for Ohio State, the comparisons are undeniable. With the ball in their hands, they seemed capable of beating entire college defenses almost single-handedly.
But before we delve into what role the 6'1'', 204-pound Miller might fill in the NFL, let’s take one last look back at Miller the Buckeye. Dedicated Ohio State fans already know this, but the more casual college football observer probably doesn’t understand how important Miller was to the program. The cruelest twist of Miller’s college career was the fact that an injury sustained while he was still the offense’s primary playmaker ultimately kept him out for every down of the national championship season he—more than any other player—helped set into motion. No matter what happens to Miller in the NFL, hopefully the Buckeyes of the future will recognize that he deserves a place alongside Hopalong Cassady, Archie Griffin, Eddie George, Chris Spielman and Mike Doss. Of the star-studded list of ex-Buckeyes whose names will be called in the draft in April, Miller probably meant the most to the program.
Why? Because Ohio State might have needed a few more years to come back from the scandal that cost the Buckeyes Jim Tressel had Miller not been signed to a letter of intent when it was discovered in early 2011 that Tressel had lied to NCAA investigators a few months earlier. Sure, the Buckeyes still probably would have hired Urban Meyer in November 2011, and we know what Meyer can do. But it’s unlikely he could have brought Ohio State back to a national championship level so quickly without Miller.
Ask anyone who spent time around Meyer’s first Ohio State team and they’ll admit the offense of that 12-0 squad (no postseason because of NCAA sanctions) was smoke, mirrors and Miller. Meyer and then-offensive coordinator Tom Herman did an incredible job of hiding the deficiencies on the roster, but they could only do that because of Miller. As a sophomore, Miller threw for 2,039 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also ran for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns. In 10 previous seasons as a head coach, Meyer had never had a 1,000-yard rusher because his spread option offense allowed him to divide touches between his quarterback, his tailbacks and his receivers. In 2012, Miller broke the 1,000-yard barrier because the Buckeyes had no other choice but to ride Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde (970 yards, 16 rushing touchdowns that year). Without Miller's dual-threat ability that year, the Buckeyes would not have announced to the world that they were ready to spring back into the nation’s elite ranks. Despite the zero in the loss column, Meyer and Miller knew they needed better players to win the games they were barred from playing in 2012.
Tuesday, Miller smiled as he thought about the work he did on and off the field in 2012 and the talented group the Buckeyes landed on National Signing Day in 2013. “Some of those guys, I had to recruit,” Miller said. “I was playing quarterback at the time, and I needed playmakers.” He’s not kidding. Miller was instrumental in helping Meyer and his staff lock down the 2013 recruiting class that included defensive end Joey Bosa, tailback Ezekiel Elliott, linebacker Darron Lee, receiver Jalin Marshall and safety Vonn Bell. Miller had seen what Tim Tebow did on Meyer’s Florida teams, but Miller also noted the talent Tebow had around him. When Tebow arrived in Gainesville in 2006, the Gators already had a loaded defense. Tebow, meanwhile, was part of the same class as Percy Harvin and Riley Cooper. “Tebow had those all his years,” Miller said. “That’s what I wanted.”
Miller, with a much bigger assist from Hyde and an offensive line that likely will have produced five NFL starters by this fall, led the Buckeyes to another 12-0 record in 2013. But Michigan State (in the Big Ten title game) and then Clemson (in the Orange Bowl) once again exposed Ohio State’s over-reliance on Miller. The Tigers especially punished Miller, who still had to absorb more hits than any other quarterback on a good team that year.
In that Orange Bowl, Miller suffered the shoulder injury that would require two surgeries, cost him his chance to lead the Buckeyes to a national title and ultimately force him to move to receiver. J.T. Barrett and then Cardale Jones would wind up leading the offense that had been designed for Miller. The players Miller helped land wound up being the playmakers he’d dreamed of playing alongside. He finally would suit up with them as a receiver in 2015, but Miller essentially was robbed of the moment he’d donated his skills, his powers of persuasion and his body parts to help the Buckeyes reach.
So before we ponder Miller's uncertain football future, let's appreciate his career in Columbus. He helped the Buckeyes climb out of a hole and all the way to college football's zenith. Hopefully, his role in this period of the program's history is properly appreciated.
Now, let's talk about that future, because Miller's senior season didn't offer much guidance. After his first game at the position against Virginia Tech, it seemed he'd dominate as a collegiate pass-catcher. That didn't happen, though. His two touchdowns against the Hokies would be a season high, and his 79 receiving yards would tie his season high. Given the way the Ohio State offense evolved—or devolved, depending on the week—as the season progressed, it's difficult to tell if Miller's lack of production owed more to issues getting open or issues getting the offense in position to get him the ball. We probably won't know the answer to that question until Miller suits up for an NFL team. If he becomes one of his quarterback's favorite targets, then blame the playcalling and the game of quarterback roulette the Buckeyes played in 2015. If Miller never develops into a dynamic receiver, blame him.
Miller seems sure he will grow into a useful playmaker in the NFL. He feels comfortable in the slot—where he played at Ohio State—and he is spending the week at the Senior Bowl learning to play on the outside. Miller, whose explosiveness kept opposing coaches from ordering their linebackers and safeties to play him too aggressively, must adjust to facing cornerbacks who have no problem jamming him because they're athletic enough to run with him if he gets loose. With enough reps, Miller believes he can learn to escape the jam and get open. His reasoning? He's running forward and, at least at first, they're running backward.
“Sometimes when they press, they want to be aggressive. You’re automatically going to expect they’re going to shoot one of their hands," Miller said. "If you use your hands to deflect their hands, that’s to your advantage. You’re already going the way they’re going, and they’re backpedaling.”
Miller also doesn't lack the confidence required to play outside in the NFL. If he had to keep some bravado tempered as a quarterback, he can let it all loose now. "Every team needs a playmaker," Miller said Tuesday. The unspoken next sentence? Miller considers himself that playmaker.
Tuesday, a reporter asked Miller twice if he'd contemplated trying to play quarterback at the next level. "That's in the past, man," Miller said. "I'm a receiver." But he was a quarterback—one of the best who ever played at Ohio State. No matter what happens from here, we should always remember that.