It would be inaccurate to ever say that Urban Meyer's starting quarterback has the toughest job in college football. Braxton Miller is one of the most talented players in the country, playing in a proven system under a proven coach, surrounded by five-star talent. He's a Heisman Trophy candidate for an expected College Football Playoff contender. The life of a college quarterback could be much, much worse.
But entering the 2014 season, Miller -- along with Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman -- faces a daunting challenge that will define the course of Ohio State's season, and also may shape both the College Football Playoff race and the national perception of the Big Ten: striking a balance between cautiously protecting himself and carrying the Buckeyes offense on his back. There's a lot riding on Miller's senior season, but the nature of his role over the course of four years means that Ohio State must walk a tightrope to reach its full potential.
Despite faltering down the stretch last season with losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship and Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the Buckeyes are widely expected to enter this fall as Big Ten favorites, again. While that's partly a result of Meyer's status as one of the game's best coaches and recruiters, as well as the development of arguably the nation's best defensive line, much of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Miller, a four-year starter who has proven to be an ideal fit for Meyer's spread option offense.
But even though Meyer's recruiting prowess has surrounded Miller with talented young players like Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott, just about everyone still has something to prove, meaning Miller's senior swan song won't be easy. Gone is Carlos Hyde, an All-America talent at running back who averaged 7.3 yards per carry at 235 pounds and scored 15 touchdowns, while serving as the perfect power back to take pressure off Miller's outside speed. Just as important, gone are four of the five starters along the offensive line, including All-Big Ten picks Corey Linsley, Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell, along with noted Michigan game heel Marcus Hall.
Ohio State has obvious concerns elsewhere, especially as it tries to stabilize the back end of its defense, but none are more pressing than making sure that Miller stays in the lineup and is healthy enough to play at full capacity. With no proven backup anymore, there are few players more valuable to their team's 2014 success.
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We saw last year how even if a quarterback is on the field, it doesn't mean his full skill set is able to be utilized. Oregon's Marcus Mariota was the Heisman favorite two months into the season, until he tweaked his knee against UCLA, then presided over a frustrating loss to Stanford and a messy loss at Arizona. His ability as a runner was diminished, and Oregon's offense wasn't the same, relegating the Ducks to a disappointing finish and a trip to the Alamo Bowl. Ohio State, which is even more reliant on its quarterback's running, survived Miller's early knee problems thanks in part to the adept play of senior backup Kenny Guiton, then had to deal with Miller's shoulder problem in the Orange Bowl, where Clemson All-America end Vic Beasley wreaked havoc on the backfield and Miller let key passes get away from him, including a game-clinching interception late.
A month and a half later, in mid-February, Miller underwent what was labeled minor shoulder surgery, and subsequently sat out spring practice.
"The conversation was if he can walk, if he's good enough to go out there, he's going to go out there," Herman said after the Orange Bowl, according to Cleveland.com. "He's our guy. We stick by him. The only conversation was, 'Can he stand up and can he throw the ball?' and that was about it. Once we got yesses to both of those questions, we were good to go."
The problem is that "standing up and throwing the ball" hardly covers the entire job description. Ohio State's top priority is preventing this from happening again, through a combination of protecting Miller in the pocket and successfully managing the number of run plays specifically designed for him. For the former, the good news is that 2013 right tackle Taylor Decker has experience and is ready to make the move to the blind side. Plus, the Buckeyes succeeded in what's essentially college football's version of free agency, landing Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay, who is immediately eligible to play. Still, the offensive line may take time to come together, which could be especially troublesome against Virginia Tech's excellent defensive line in Week 2.
For the latter, it's a matter of spreading out defenses and finding ways to replace some of Miller's running, ideally through the emergence of a player like Wilson, who could turn into a dynamic threat as a runner and receiver and in the screen game (there's a reason he's been labeled as Meyer's next Percy Harvin). Whereas much of Ohio State's success last year was predicated on the inside/outside combination of Hyde and Miller, this year it could be all about maximizing the space defenses have to cover, depending on the development of Elliott as a replacement for Hyde.
But everything still runs through Miller, who in addition to averaging 6.3 yards per carry has improved as a passer in both completion percentage (63.5 last year) and yards per attempt (8.2) each of his three seasons. He has the arm strength (see above), and it's a matter of continuing to get comfortable in terms of accuracy and the mental aspects of the game as he tries to improve his status with NFL evaluators. Running backs are having a tough go of things themselves, with a short shelf life damaging their long-term value in the NFL. So what happens when a quarterback, in this age of passing, has to deal with a similar workload on the ground, on top of everything else a quarterback is responsible for?
Miller ranks first among active quarterbacks and fifth among all players in career rushing attempts with 557 entering this season. Since 2000, that mark places him 11th among Big Five conference quarterbacks, a list topped by Brad Smith (799), Denard Robinson (722), Tim Tebow (692), Pat White (684) and Joshua Nesbitt (669), according to College Football Reference. (Tebow, of course, was also a Meyer quarterback.) Miller has another season left, and if he repeats his total of 171 carries from last year, he'd rank second on the list, even topping Robinson, who was famously overused in Michigan's transition from Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke, despite his small frame.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Miller has two inches and 18 pounds on his former rival Robinson, but he's still taken a beating as Ohio State's offense has relied so much on his big-play ability since the beginning of his freshman year, when the Buckeyes were afraid to let him throw during the year in post-Tressel purgatory in which he shared some snaps with Joe Bauserman. Even after that, in 2012 he ranked third overall in the Big Ten in rush attempts, and last year he ranked 10th despite missing two games. It's a hefty workload for anyone, let alone a Heisman candidate quarterback who's trying to diversify the offense and become more polished as a passer.
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It would also be inaccurate to say that Miller is somehow underrated. He's not exactly flying under the radar, as he's tied for second with Marcus Mariota, behind Jameis Winston, in Bovada's preseason Heisman odds at 11:2, for an Ohio State team that will be almost universally ranked in the preseason top five.
Still, it's become easy for his skill set to be overshadowed. Johnny Manziel dominated the headlines and won a Heisman. Winston is now doing the same and won a Heisman too. Mariota may be the best NFL prospect. UCLA's Brett Hundley is coveted by the pros as well. Miller, meanwhile, faces doubts about his NFL ceiling, and his junior season -- in which Guiton kept the offense moving in place of an injured Miller early in the season -- felt like a bit of a letdown from 2012, when postseason-ineligible Ohio State finished 12-0 and, though not a finalist, Miller finished fifth in the Heisman voting. In a time when we're always searching for the next big thing, it's sometimes easy to overlook the guy who's been around for a while and hasn't been on a constant upward trajectory.
To add to that, Miller, more than any current player because he's Ohio State's veteran quarterback, carries the weight of the Big Ten's perception problem on his shoulders. There is now a natural tendency on the national level to doubt any success from the Big Ten, fair or not. Ohio State won 24 straight games when Meyer took over, and came within a win over Michigan State of playing Florida State for the national title, but nothing short of actually beating a Florida State or Alabama for the championship will begin to erase doubts that have been building up ever since the Buckeyes' back-to-back title game losses to the SEC in 2006-07. That's why many argued that a one-loss Auburn should have usurped undefeated Ohio State, had the Buckeyes beaten the Spartans. The argument was ultimately rendered moot, but it won't go away as debates begin about who's deserving of a spot in the new four-team playoff.
So it's a big year for the Big Ten and for Ohio State, who are trying to stake out their on-field place in the playoff landscape and fight back against those negative perceptions. No player is more important to that mission than Miller. Michigan State can't be dismissed after it knocked off the Buckeyes and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but ultimately it's Ohio State who has the league's highest ceiling, and it's Ohio State who is most likely to do the most to try to reverse the anti-Big Ten cycle. There's rarely a better time to do it than when you have a senior Heisman candidate at quarterback.
Miller has experienced it all in his long career as a starter: a mediocre season after the sudden firing of Jim Tressel; an undefeated but unrecognized season thanks to sanctions he had nothing to do with; a perfect regular season damaged by injuries and ultimately ending in disappointment. Where his final act takes him will depend both on luck and the ability of his team to figure out how to maximize his contributions while not depending on him for everything.