An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential. This week, Ohio State junior Braxton Miller checks in at No. 6.
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It's so easy to get caught up in the coaching, and it's so hard to assign credit elsewhere. At Texas A&M, Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury were revered for providing a platform for Johnny Manziel to succeed … but, as an exception, Manziel transcended them. In 2013, Manziel is Texas A&M football.
Up north in Columbus, however, Urban Meyer is Ohio State football, overshadowing a quarterback who finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting while leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 season. Not that Braxton Miller isn't acclaimed or isn't seen as an All-America candidate, but he falls under the "Urban Meyer Quarterback" label. In his first season as starter, under interim coach Luke Fickell, Ohio State went 6-7 and was hopeless in the passing game. In his second season, under Meyer, Ohio State went 12-0. The variable is obvious.
We attach ourselves to coaching narratives in college football because they are the foundations of the sport. Players can't stick around for more than four years; successful coaches can theoretically stick around for decades. What is odd about the Ohio State situation is that, because of the 6-7 season after Tressel's firing, and because of the Big Ten's plunge into punch-line territory over the last decade since the Buckeyes won a national title, Meyer has been seen as a sort of savior of Buckeye football, ignoring the fact that Ohio State spent the previous decade totally dominating its conference, only coming up short -- yes, often in embarrassing fashion -- in bowl games.
Of course, it was Meyer who made the first major statement on behalf of the SEC when Florida dismantled Ohio State in the 2006 title game, and certainly, Meyer was as well-equipped as anyone to be the immediate savior of Ohio State, while also being more broadly seen as the savior of the Big Ten's national reputation.
At his disposal, he has Miller, a new variation on the Urban Meyer Quarterback. With one undefeated season already in the books, we still have to ask: Can Miller fulfill impossibly high expectations?
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Let's step back and look at the first three Urban Meyer Quarterbacks, not including Florida's Chris Leak, who doesn't fit into the style we think of, or 2010 Florida starter John Brantley, who definitely doesn't fit into that category.
- Josh Harris, Bowling Green. In Meyer's first year as head coach in 2001, Harris split time with Andy Sahm, being used as a runner mostly until late in the season. As the full-time starter in 2002, Harris completed only 56.1 percent of his passes for 2,425 yards, 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while rushing 186 times for 737 yards and an impressive 20 touchdowns. Meyer moved on to Utah, while Harris returned for his senior season under Gregg Brandon, who was promoted from offensive coordinator. Under Brandon, Harris was phenomenal statistically, throwing for 3,813 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and rushing for 830 yards and 13 touchdowns as the Falcons went 11-3.
- Alex Smith, Utah. While Harris did not parlay his college success into much of an NFL career, Smith did. In two years as Meyer's starter for the Utes, Smith improved in just about every statistical category, completing 67.5 percent of his attempts for 2,952 yards with 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a senior while rushing for 631 yards and 10 touchdowns. Utah finished 12-0, blowing out Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl for the first BCS bowl win by a team from a non-AQ conference (Utah, at the time, being in the Mountain West). The disparity between the perception of this result and the result of Boise State-Oklahoma two years later in the Fiesta Bowl remains amazing. Smith went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 2005 NFL draft; Meyer replaced Ron Zook at Florida.
- Tim Tebow, Florida. Before he became some sort of caricature, Tebow was still much-hyped but backed up all the attention with an all-time great college career to become the ideal of an "Urban Meyer quarterback." As a complementary package player behind Chris Leak, he ran for eight touchdowns as a freshman in the Gators' first national title season under Meyer in 2006. The next year, they lost four games, but Tebow deservedly became the first sophomore Heisman winner, throwing for 3,286 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushing for 895 yards and 23 touchdowns -- numbers in the Manziel realm. Florida went 13-1 in each of his final two years as starter, winning the national title in 2008, as he continued to put up big numbers (42 total touchdowns as a junior, 35 as a senior) even if they didn't quite match his absurd Heisman production. His college career ended, Meyer stuck around for one more year before taking a coaching sabbatical … and you know the rest.
There is actually a recent Ohio State quarterback who put up similar number to Tebow in his final year, but it wasn't Miller: It was Terrelle Pryor … playing under Jim Tressel. Tressel never abandoned his conservative ways, of course, but Pryor's college production was probably unfairly scrutinized because of unrealistic expectations as a recruit. He wasn't spectacular, but he finished strong as a junior before NCAA problems forced him to enter the supplemental draft:
Miller's first season as starter in 2011 was essentially under the same system, as the Tressel staff remained in place, minus Tressel, and his numbers looked awfully similar to Pryor's as a freshman (to be fair, Pryor had a much better supporting cast). As a raw, young passer, the passing game was extraordinarily limited, hence his 1,159 passing yards despite averaging close to the same yards per attempt under Meyer in 2012. Pryor developed each year as a passer too, throwing too many interceptions but still putting up really solid numbers in his final year as his rushing held steady. Miller and Pryor are different players, but it still feels like, this year, Miller can be the answer to the question of what Pryor would have done had he played for Meyer instead.
Miller wasn't terrible as a passer last year -- the 8.0 yards per attempt number is solid -- but his completion rate wasn't where it needs to be, especially on third down (48.7 percent) and the passing game was still limited with only a handful of weapons, led by Corey Brown, big-play receiver Devin Smith (20.6 yards per catch) and tight end Jake Stoneburner. In Meyer's 11 seasons as a head coach, Miller had only the second season among full-time starters with a completion percentage of less than 60 percent -- an arbitrary number, of course, but still generally considered the bench mark for "good." Only Bowling Green's Harris was worse, completing 56.1 percent in 2002.
Miller's mechanics were flawed; his passes often sailed long; he was not trusted with full command of the passing game; his receiving corps lacked depth. But the coaching staff effectively managed him and limited his mistakes, and, more importantly, turned him loose as a runner.
That's where Miller became a star, and that's where Meyer's system came in with designed runs that allowed him to rush for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns. Harris, Smith, Tebow and now Miller get lumped together because they effectively operated Meyer's system, helping to bring the spread option into the mainstream, but they all brought vastly different skillsets to the table, as shown by, for example, the divergent NFL careers of Smith and Tebow.
Miller is especially different from those other Meyer QBs: He is undoubtedly the fastest one Meyer has ever employed, certainly faster than Tebow, who was more of a power runner. At the height of Florida's power, Tebow was used mostly to run options and direct-snap runs between the tackles. Miller brings the outside game to the table -- especially when paired with a 240-pound power back like Carlos Hyde, who we'll deal with in a minute -- and is as dangerous as anyone when he gets to the edge. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Miller is about average size for a quarterback, but his incredibly quick feet and burst are still jarring.
Where Harris, Smith and Tebow never averaged more than 5.3 yards per carry, Miller averaged 5.6 yards per carry while attempting a Meyer-QB-high 227 rushes in only 12 games (Tebow's highest was 217 in a 14-game 2009 season). And his 14 runs of 20-plus yards tied him for 11th nationally.
In a 12-0 season in which Ohio State often didn't look like an undefeated team, Miller's big plays were perhaps the biggest difference-maker.
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While Ohio State is loaded with talent and high expectations on the field after an undefeated season, nearly all of Meyer's press conference at Big Ten media day on Wednesday dealt with questions regarding his handling of off-the-field issues. In 2013, Urban Mayer is Ohio State football; Ohio State football is Urban Meyer. Meyer isn't just the story on the field, he's the story off of it.
This sprung up partially from the Aaron Hernandez case, and partially from the latest news in Columbus: On Monday, Ohio State suspended All-Big Ten running back Carlos Hyde indefinitely, and it was also reported that All-American cornerback Bradley Roby was arrested Sunday. Meyer deftly stepped around those questions, and here we'll go back to thinking about his football team.
As with the coach-QB relationship, it's difficult to divide credit in the backfield. While Hyde appears replaceable -- if the suspension holds up, which it may not -- because the threat of Miller's outside speed played a big role in his success, it's also Hyde's ability (970 yards, 16 touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry) as a power back that helps Meyer's offense fully function and differ from the Tebow offenses at Florida, which lacked go-to power running backs.
Backups Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn could likely do most of the things that Hyde does, and in an ideal world true freshman Dontre Wilson could even potentially emerge as a new Percy Harvin-like threat out of the backfield. It's no surprise that Tebow's best season statistically and his championship season both came with Harvin averaging more than nine yards per carry as the offense's movable chess piece. Combine the collection of power backs and speedy joker-types like Wilson and Jordan Hall, and Meyer could -- again potentially -- have his most complete backfield, especially if the experienced and proven Hyde is cleared.
Regardless, everything goes back to Miller. He is the most important player on the team. He is the quarterback who Meyer's ideal offense can't operate without. While last season's 12-0 record may have been a bit misleading, Miller was nearly impossible to defend as a runner. That was only year one. If he becomes a more polished passer, we may actually be able to start talking about Urban Meyer turning the tables and ending the SEC's championship streak. Just save some attention for his quarterback.
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