CHICAGO — Braxton Miller has been good — very good — the last two seasons. Only now, though, is Ohio State coach Urban Meyer starting to see his quarterback nearing his potential.
“He’s real close,” Meyer said from Big Ten Media Day Monday. “I made the comment that you couldn’t see the ceiling (before). You can see the ceiling with him now.”
That ceiling is a mix of a lethal run-pass threat at quarterback and a leader of a potential national title-contending team. To reach that ceiling and for Ohio State to remain in championship contention, Miller may have to get through a season unscathed.
Meyer tried to deflect some attention away from Miller to an offensive line that returns only one starter, but it’s clear the quarterback is the key. Ohio State has sent him to work with Jon Gruden and brought in a former NFL general manager to meet with him.
“We’ve pulled out every possible stop to make sure he’s ready to go and he embraced it,” Meyer said.
Miller isn’t shy about talking about the possibility of what could happen if he has a season at his potential. This is a guy who walks past seven Heisman Trophies on his way through the Ohio State football facility. He’s twice finished in the top 10 and appeared on several watch lists.
“I’ve been in the Heisman talk since my sophomore year,” Miller said. “I walk past that all the time, and I think about what I need to do to walk across that podium.”
With a Sept. 6 game against Virginia Tech — ranked 27th by Athlon Sports in the preseason — Miller will need to get off to a healthier start than he did a year ago if he's going to achieve those kinds of goals.
Miller missed two full games and most of a third in September last season with a knee injury. Lucky for Ohio State, those games were against San Diego State, Cal and Florida A&M. Miller, though, returned to the lineup at full strength, throwing four touchdown passes in a 31-24 win over Wisconsin on Sept. 28.
But Miller also struggled by the end of the year. He was a combined 14-of-36 for 234 yards passing against Michigan and Michigan State, though he rushed for nearly 300 yards and five touchdowns as the Buckeyes split games against the Spartans and Wolverines. He also played through a shoulder injury in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, in which he accounted for three total touchdowns but also threw two interceptions.
Miller attempted to rehab the shoulder without surgery for the first seven weeks of the offseason before deciding to undergo outpatient surgery in late February. The surgery kept him out of spring practice, which may not have been all bad for Miller.
"It's probably what I needed," Miller said. "Just learning the game from the defensive coaches. Learning how practice is without you practicing."
Since his offseason surgery, Miller says he's been throwing for two weeks, and he has returned to full strength.
The margin for error, though, will be slim. Ohio State is counting on Miller like never before. Perhaps that’s a strong statement for a quarterback who has passed for more than 2,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,000 the last two seasons. But it’s accurate.
Ohio State will need to replace Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 1,521 yards in 11 games last season. Two starting receivers return, but Meyer was displeased with the progress of the entire position group during the spring.
Perhaps most important is the departure of Kenny Guiton, a senior who flourished in his role as backup the last two seasons. Guiton completed 68.4 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions in September last season, and a year earlier, he led Ohio State to an overtime win over Purdue in relief of an injured Miller.
Ohio State’s backup quarterback is now sophomore Cardale Jones, who has thrown two career passes. Of course, the Buckeyes hope the season doesn’t come down to a backup.
A healthy Miller may be the difference between a solid Ohio State team and one looking to make up for near misses the last two seasons.
In 2012, the Buckeyes went 12-0 but missed a chance at a Big Ten championship and a potential national championship game while serving a bowl ban. Had Ohio State served its bowl ban a year earlier — when the Buckeyes wrapped up a 6-7 season with a Gator Bowl loss — the 2012 team may have been able to play for a national championship.
And last season, Ohio State started 12-0 before losing 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and 40-35 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
In addition, a healthy and productive season could make Miller the most prolific quarterback for Meyer and the Big Ten.
With a career year, Miller could top Florida’s Tim Tebow in career total offense among Meyer quarterbacks. Miller enters his senior season 3,886 yards short of the 2007 Heisman winner. With a monster year, Miller could challenge Purdue’s Drew Brees’ for the Big Ten record of total offense. Miller is 4,346 yards short of Brees’ record of 12,692 total yards.
Granted, Miller’s average the last two seasons is 3,236 yards per year, both times in 12 games. Ohio State, ranked No. 3 in the Athlon preseason top 25, has aspirations of playing more than a dozen games, though.
The goal isn’t the numbers. It’s the balance. Meyer needs Miller to improve his ability in the passing game to reach that ceiling that’s now in his quarterback’s sights.
“We have to be very balanced,” Meyer said. “We have been too one-dimensional with him. He’s got the skill set and we believe he has the knowledge, and we believe the personnel around him is better.”