- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A look at three Ohio State players who will be critical in the Big Ten opener on Saturday against Michigan State and how they might be able to impact the outcome.
The basics: At times it seemed as if the Buckeyes were saving the sophomore quarterback for the start of Big Ten play with Miller not even rushing for the first time until midway through the second quarter against UAB. That ultimately didn't keep Ohio State from keeping its record perfect, but if it's going to stay that way, Miller's multi-purpose skills will almost certainly have to be on display early and often.
By the numbers: So far, the sophomore's scoring has been perfectly balanced. Miller has racked up 14 touchdowns for Ohio State through four games, just six shy of the total he posted during his true freshman campaign. Half of them have come through the air, and his seven rushing touchdowns have already matched his total on the ground from last season -- getting there on 92 fewer carries.
Opportunity for impact: Miller will have both of his top sidekicks at running back healthy for the first time, which should help as he runs the spread-option rushing attack. But what the Buckeyes will really need is for their passer to show off his improved accuracy and poise throwing the football, because the Spartans are going to dare Miller to beat them deep. And when Devin Smith or Corey "Philly" Brown get behind the defense like they did on occasion last week, Miller can't miss them.
He said it: "(The difference) is pretty dramatic. I was told that was his first (Big Ten) start as a Buckeye as a true freshman, really a guy who signed at Ohio State expecting to play behind a veteran quarterback and then was thrust into it, did not have the greatest training camp a year ago. He’s a lot different now than he was." -- Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer on the progression for Miller from the Michigan State game a year ago
The basics: The junior is clearly getting more comfortable as the season progresses, and he has been stacking improved performances on top of each other heading into Big Ten play. The potentially scary thing for the big man in the middle is that he's been having an impact against teams trying to spread the field, and with league play ready to kick off, there should be even more chances to make a mark against more traditional offenses.
By the numbers: After a sluggish statistical start to the season, Hankins has exploded in the middle of the line with double-digit tackling performances in each of the last two games to move into a tie for third on the team with 25 takedowns. He also has chipped in at least half of tackle for loss in each of the last three games thanks to the impressive penetration he has been getting in the backfield.
Opportunity for impact: There's not much of a secret what the Spartans want to do offensively with bulldozing tailback Le'Veon Bell, but an old-school, power rushing attack could play right into Ohio State's hands with Hankins patrolling the line of scrimmage. Michigan State has had a few lapses and also hasn't quite lived up to expectations on the offensive line, which could open up some cracks for Hankins on the interior and defensive end John Simon on the edge.
He said it: "With him, because he's such a quality person and a smart guy, I think the sky is the limit. I don't think we've touched where he can be. I think (defensive line coach) Mike Vrabel is doing a nice job fundamentally, but he's still got some development to do -- and when he does it, I think he'll be one of the best players in the country." -- Meyer
The basics: By his own admission, Bryant battled through an inconsistent season a year ago. But he has become a steady presence in the backend and made contributions all over the field. As long as Bryant is keeping his emotions in check and avoiding penalties like the taunting call he drew against UAB, he's becoming a much more reliable playmaker.
By the numbers: The junior has built himself into much more than a feared hitter in the secondary, though that skill does still come in handy. Bryant forced his first fumble of the season last week against UAB to help swing field position and set up a score in a tight game before halftime, and the Buckeyes could use a few more loose footballs on the ground after forcing a total of just three fumbles through four games -- recovering two of them.
Opportunity for impact: Fellow starting safety C.J. Barnett was downgraded by Meyer to questionable on Thursday, which will put more pressure on Bryant to deliver in the secondary for the second consecutive week. Whether it's arriving to help against the run and bring down Bell, helping in coverage against athletic Michigan State tight end Dion Sims or reading where an inexperienced quarterback like Andrew Maxwell is going with the football, Bryant will have to be active with the secondary planning on taking a more aggressive approach collectively this week.
He said it: "I just see a different guy coming into the building. He was just in here (Monday) laughing and giggling, 'Where’s the game plan?' You know, that’s what you want. You want your starting free safety to be here at 12:30 wanting the damn first- and second-down game plan. That’s what I love, and I’m loving that about him." -- co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers
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