The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year is moving away from quarterback, and somehow this makes things even more frightening for the rest of college football. This is the reality of Ohio State in 2015, a deep and athletic machine that will attack opponents from all angles with an unlimited supply of explosive, highly regarded athletes. That machine will again include Braxton Miller, only this time at a position that's not quarterback.
Thursday night, Sports Illustrated reported that Miller, who sat out the 2014 season with a shoulder injury, will move to a hybrid receiver/H-back role, meaning he'll be a movable chess piece in an Ohio State offense loaded with players who can line up anywhere, including Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel. That's not to mention everything else at the Buckeyes' disposal: running back Ezekiel Elliott, a Heisman Trophy favorite entering the season; or Michael Thomas, who caught 54 passes; or Nick Vannett, who should shine as the full-time starting tight end. Or the four returning starters to the offensive line.
Or, of course, the two possible Heisman candidates still at quarterback in Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, who finished fifth in the vote last year.
Miller initially hurt his shoulder in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2013 season, and he re-injured it last August, which sidelined him for the season. That opened the door for Barrett, a redshirt freshman, to start, and all Barrett did was rank second nationally in passer rating and rush for nearly 1,000 yards before breaking his leg against Michigan. That, in turn, opened the door for Jones, a strong-armed pocket passer with power-running ability. He shined in three games, leading Ohio State to a 59-0 Big Ten title win over Wisconsin, followed by wins in the playoff over Alabama and Oregon to claim the national championship.
With Miller attempting to return from his shoulder injury, Barrett bouncing back from his leg injury and Jones electing to return for another season, the stage was set for the best problem in college football history as Urban Meyer, offensive coordinator Ed Warinner and new quarterbacks coach Tim Beck attempted to figure out which star quarterback to play. The decision just got a bit easier, with Miller's decision -- he says he began considering it in April -- benefiting all involved.
"For the most part, it's going to be H-Back and punt return," Miller told Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel. "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."
It's been a year and a half since we last saw Miller in action in that Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, so let's no forget just how dangerous of an all-around football player he is. The Buckeyes lost only two games in two years with Miller as the full-time starting quarterback in 2012-13, and he both passed for 2,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 yards in each season, finishing in the top 10 of the Heisman race both times. Miller wasn't merely the most explosive running quarterback in the country; he was one of the most explosive runners, period. In 2013, he averaged 6.25 yards per carry with a Big Ten-best 10 runs of 30 or more yards. He has one of the best first steps in college football, but he's also a nifty runner with impressive elusiveness. There's little reason to think the transition to a new position won't go relatively smoothly, assuming he can stay healthy.
While we have not seen Miller as a receiver, he looks the part at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. Meyer is a master at getting the ball in the hands of his playmakers in different ways -- you may remember Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin at Florida -- and from Miller to Marshall to Elliott to Samuel to Wilson to Thomas to the quarterbacks and more, he's never had more weapons to work with, even with the loss of Devin Smith, the best deep-ball receiver in the nation. Meyer, of course, is going to be cautious with praise.
"We won't know enough until practice starts how we can use him and what he can do," Meyer told Cleveland.com Thursday night. "I just don't know. He's a great athlete, but he's never caught a pass for us. So we'll know more and we have plenty of time when practice starts."
Miller could have transferred to any number of big-time schools to attempt to play quarterback this season. Instead, he's sticking around, and probably doing what's best for his shoulder and for his pro future, as he'll likely be a hybrid player in the pros. He may return punts, along with the dangerous Marshall, and he'll split out wide, play in the slot and line up in the backfield. He'll be a passing threat at all times, too.
Miller was a high-profile star before anyone else currently on the roster, and yet he's the one stepping aside for the younger players and doing what's best for the team as a whole. Unlimited options are on the table with the most talented roster in college football, but it's not just the talent: Ohio State isn't lacking team chemistry either.
Ohio State was already in rare position as a national champion that lost zero players early to the draft, with five total players taken. Now, in addition to returning All-America candidates at every position unit, it adds one of the nation's most explosive runners to its supporting cast around two great options at quarterback.
That quarterback battle is still to be decided -- we'll probably see both Barrett and Jones in some capacity -- and for all the hype, Ohio State can't overlook its Week 1 battle on the road with a well-coached, aggressive and talented Virginia Tech defense that frustrated it last year. But a lot has changed in a year.
Ohio State was already infinitely better than it was last September when it lost to the Hokies, and, somehow, the decision of a Heisman candidate quarterback to move to receiver takes that improvement another step.