NCF Nation: Tom Herman


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was already more than enough evidence proving the sharpness of Urban Meyer's eye for talent, but add one more perfect example to the Ohio State coach's file.

Tom Herman wasn't toiling away in total anonymity while at Iowa State and building his case as one of the hottest young coordinators in the nation, but he also wasn't so well known that it was obvious Meyer would have to pursue him when he was putting together his first Buckeyes coaching staff three seasons ago. In fact, there really was no previous relationship between the two of them at all.

But Herman shared a similar philosophy with Meyer and won him over quickly despite not popping up on many coaching hot lists. The same was true for current co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, when Meyer was in the market for an assistant on that side of the ball after last season.

With a coaching tree that has sprouted yet another branch -- Herman is officially taking over as Houston's coach -- and so many Meyer protégés scattered around the country, by now it should be no secret that Meyer is as successful at spotting what he wants in his coaches as he is recruiting top-shelf talent for them to work with on the field.

Filling Herman's shoes won't be easy, not after his wild success preparing four quarterbacks in the past two seasons -- thanks to a string of injuries that almost certainly would have crippled most attacks but barely slowed down the Buckeyes -- to operate the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. But when added to a list of former assistants -- like Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Steve Addazio, Doc Holliday, Tim Beckman and Gary Andersen -- who are now in charge of programs, the loss of Herman represents another chance for Meyer to add fresh ideas and continue evolving, rather than pose an insurmountable obstacle for title chances in 2015.

The hiring of Herman by the Cougars also offers a fantastic fit for both parties. Herman's ties to recruiting Texas, his knowledge of quarterback play and the spread offense, and his personality will be smash hits with fans and boosters of his new program. It's a victory for the Buckeyes in that they'll keep him around for as long as they're alive in the College Football Playoff.

So even though there's always uncertainty when a job this critical to a major program like Ohio State comes open, Meyer has earned the benefit of the doubt that he'll get his hire right, probably by nabbing an up-and-comer who wasn't widely considered an option when the process began. And given the somewhat unusual way Meyer operates with his offensive staff, he's already working from ahead because he doesn't have to also replace his invaluable offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who like Herman is destined to run his own program at some point in the near future.

"Like on offense right now, we have two coordinators -- Ed Warinner, Tom Herman -- and myself," Meyer said recently. "It’s not one guy calling plays, that’s not the way how we do business. At some places, that’s maybe how they do it.

"But we script each play, everybody is involved in the game plan and that’s the only way I’m going to have it. I don’t want that dictator in there, that’s not the way we do business."

Losing another coordinator, even the reigning Broyles Award winner as the best assistant in the nation, isn't going to run the Buckeyes out of business.

It's probably going to provide a major boost for Houston and it sets Herman on the path to prove himself and potentially land a bigger job down the road, while leaving Meyer to do a bit of professional recruiting again this offseason. In the end, the odds look good that everybody gets what they want.
1. A Charlie Strong may be able to get a job at Texas because kids want to play for Texas. But the head coach at Houston needs to have connections to the high school coaches in a notoriously provincial state. Tom Herman, whom Houston all but hired Monday, spent the first 11 seasons of his coaching career at Texas universities playing at three different NCAA levels. Herman also proved as Ohio State offensive coordinator that he has the offensive bona fides to coach the Cougars, where there’s a long tradition of lighting up the scoreboard. The hire makes a lot of sense. Now let’s see if Herman’s a head coach.

2. It was only three years ago that Clemson won the ACC in spite of its defense, which allowed 31 points or more in six of its last eight games, including the 70-33 horror show of a loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Fast forward to 2014 and the transformation is complete. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has put together the FBS leader in total defense. The Tigers allowed 259.6 yards per game this season, a full 135 yards better than the average in 2011 and nearly a football field better than last season’s mark (356.7).

3. In the aftermath of Vanderbilt’s miserable 3-9 season, first-year head coach Derek Mason fired both of his coordinators and his strength coach, the three most important positions on his staff. They had made sense on paper. Mason hired former UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell, his position coach at Northern Arizona, to run the offense and serve as mentor. Mason brought defensive coordinator David Kutulski and strength coach Bill Hughan with him from Stanford. And now they’re gone. That won’t inspire confidence in Mason for the next round of hirings.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Surprise is something of a dirty word when it comes to breaking down performances at Ohio State, but this time coach Urban Meyer was willing to make an exception.

Expressing surprise betrays that there might not have been confidence in his players. It suggests the coaching staff may not have done everything possible all along to get the roster prepared to play at a high level. And it could even extend all the way to the top, indicating Meyer didn't truly believe his own system would be able to work without his first-choice players operating it.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
AP Photo/Darron CummingsQB Cardale Jones performed surprisingly well in Ohio State's Big Ten title game victory over Wisconsin.
But after steadfastly standing behind Cardale Jones all last week, even Meyer admitted to being somewhat taken aback by what he saw from the redshirt sophomore in his starting debut as the No. 4 Buckeyes absolutely dismantled Wisconsin to win the Big Ten championship and help clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff.

"Surprise, you're right, I don't use the word," Meyer said. "I guess I'll use it for the first time. I was a little surprised.

"He's one of the most improved players I've ever been around."

By now, that trend of Ohio State turning to one of its backups and continuing to thrive on offense shouldn't come as a shock to anybody.

Jones wasn't the first to do it since Meyer took over, and it's looking like a safe bet he won't be the last. Looking back over the past two seasons, the Buckeyes have been forced to plug in a new quarterback to make a starting debut on short notice three different times because of injuries, and the results have been nothing short of remarkable.

The virtuoso performance by Jones may go down as the most impressive of them all even judged against the future considering what was on the line, but there is already an impressive list being made under Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman's watch.

Cardale Jones

  • Starting debut: Big Ten championship game against No. 13 Wisconsin
  • Previous experience: Jones had appeared in mop-up duty during each of the past two seasons, playing a total of 142 snaps -- with none of them coming in the first half of a game. He had never even attempted a pass with Ohio State leading by 28 points or less.
  • Situation: After getting beat out by J.T. Barrett in training camp, Jones watched from the sidelines all season as the redshirt freshman emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate. But Barrett went down with a broken ankle in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale against Michigan, pressing him into relief action in that win and putting him in line for the first-team job against the Badgers.
  • Outcome: With the stakes as high as they could possibly be, Jones delivered exactly what Ohio State needed -- and had come to expect at quarterback. He completed 12 of his 17 passes for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns, and while sacks put a dent in his rushing yardage, his positive carries gained 35 yards on the ground. The Buckeyes rolled to a 59-0 win and into the playoff.
J.T. Barrett

  • Starting debut: Aug. 30 in Baltimore against Navy
  • Previous experience: Barrett redshirted during his first year on campus, soaking up information in a meeting room that included Braxton Miller, decorated backup Kenny Guiton and Jones. He didn't even have the benefit of taking first-string reps during spring practice after working behind Jones until passing him on the depth chart about two weeks before the season started.
  • Situation: Just two days after Meyer moved Barrett into the No. 2 role, Miller re-injured his shoulder and was ruled out for the season. With the two-time defending Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year on the shelf, Ohio State turned to a player who hadn't taken live snaps since midway through his senior season in high school.
  • Outcome: There were clearly some nerves early in the game, and a disciplined, well-prepared Navy defense wasn't making it easy for Barrett. But he was efficient in the throwing game, completing 12 of his 15 attempts for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns and he rushed 9 times for 50 yards, with his only real blemish an interception in a 34-17 victory.
Kenny Guiton

  • Starting debut: Sept. 14, 2013 at California
  • Previous experience: By his senior campaign, Guiton had already emerged as an invaluable weapon for the Buckeyes coming off the bench to take over during games for Miller if injuries forced him to the sideline. Typically, though, he was only needed in short stretches, either for a couple plays or until a drive ended -- with Guiton often producing touchdowns to craft his reputation as a solid safety net.
  • Situation: Guiton's part-time role changed when Miller suffered a knee injury in the first quarter against San Diego State, leaving Guiton to handle the rest of that easy victory. And it set the stage for his first full game in charge against the Golden Bears, a non-conference road trip where Ohio State couldn't afford to lose if it was going to stay in the BCS conversation all season.
  • Outcome: Guiton didn't miss a beat for the Buckeyes, delivering a 90-yard touchdown strike on the opening drive and never looking back. He finished with 21 completions in 32 attempts for 276 yards with 4 touchdowns, and he added 92 more yards on the ground as Ohio State rolled to a 52-34 victory behind a Guiton-led, high-powered attack.
It all comes back to Urban Meyer, really.

On Jan. 7, 2007, Meyer led an underdog Florida team into University of Phoenix Stadium and the Gators crushed Ohio State 41-14. The win did more than give Meyer his first national championship and Florida its first since 1996.

The game set the narrative that the Big Ten is down, a label the league has struggled to shake ever since.

Six years and 11 months later, the Big Ten has received another opportunity to change its story. Despite a brutal start to the 2014 season, the league has an entry in the inaugural College Football Playoff as Ohio State nabbed the fourth and final spot Sunday.

Once again, Meyer is the central character, and once again, he'll lead an underdog team onto the national stage. This time, it's the Buckeyes, who take on top-ranked Alabama in a playoff semifinal Jan. 1 at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

It's a chance for Ohio State -- and the Big Ten -- to validate itself in the national discussion. It's also a chance for the Big Ten to be exposed to the criticism it has heard all too often since that January night in the desert.

"At some point, if you're going to reach for the top, that you have to go through the top," Meyer said Sunday. "And the last several years Alabama has certainly been at the top of college football."

That a Big Ten team has a chance to change the league's negative national narrative is a victory in and of itself. The Big Ten's nonconference flops during the first three weeks -- Ohio State's 14-point home loss to Virginia Tech, among them -- had many counting out the league's playoff hopes six weeks before the initial rankings were released.

But the mere action of taking on marquee opponents from other conferences benefited the Big Ten in the end.

"Sometimes you can win by losing because you're making an effort and your team gets better," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told after the playoff selections. "You get better by playing better people."

The selection committee made it clear that playing top nonconference opponents and losing is better than not playing them at all (see: Baylor). And arguably no Power 5 team improved more during the course of the season than Ohio State, despite using two quarterbacks (J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones) barely anyone knew outside Columbus when preseason camp kicked off in August.

The opportunity is there for Ohio State, but it faces a mammoth challenge in Alabama. The Buckeyes opened as 9.5-point underdogs in the matchup (Ohio State was a 7-point favorite against Meyer's Florida team in 2007). Although Jones far exceeded expectations in his first career start in the Big Ten title game against a strong Wisconsin defense, he will see a much faster Tide unit in New Orleans. Alabama allows just 2.8 yards per rush with just three rushing touchdowns allowed all season.

Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have been masterful in preparing inexperienced quarterbacks for big stages. They'll need their best work to prepare Jones for the biggest stage against the best program in college football.

But that's what you should want as an Ohio State fan, and as a Big Ten fan. You get it in the postseason, not just with the Ohio State-Alabama game but throughout the Big Ten's bowl lineup.

Big Ten teams face offensive juggernauts in Baylor, Auburn and USC. Michigan State gets one more chance to take down a top team in Baylor after stumbling in its first two opportunities. After the Indianapolis implosion, Wisconsin tries to end its season on a brighter note in the Outback Bowl. Minnesota can cement its rise under Jerry Kill with a bowl win against Missouri.

There are two league champions (Alabama and Baylor), two runners-up (Missouri and Louisiana Tech) and five ranked opponents on the Big Ten's bowl slate.

As Delany reminded me Sunday, I've been critical of the Big Ten's bowl lineup in the past, both because of its difficulty and its lack of diversity. This year's lineup seems to strike a good balance between both, although it still looks daunting. Which is good -- the Big Ten needs to step up eventually.

Delany declined to assess the larger implication of Ohio State's performance against Alabama, but he knows it's important. These are the games that Big Ten teams have lost -- often in convincing fashion -- too often in recent years. Ohio State once again will hear about its record against the SEC in bowl games (its only win, against Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl, later was vacated).

But the Buckeyes and the Big Ten can't be written off. Many made that mistake in early September.

"I'm not going to put categorizations on particular games," Delany said. "If you win, there's no issue; if you lose, there's an issue. We have 10 bowl games. Earlier in the year, I said these are big stages and big opportunities, and they are."

That's all you can ask for, and three months ago, the Big Ten seemed unlikely to earn a second chance.

Now it just needs Meyer to repeat what he did eight years ago.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The debate will continue until the College Football Playoff selection committee reveals its picks for the four-team field, and the controversy surely won't stop then.

Does No. 5 Ohio State belong in the playoff over Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor? Good luck to the committee figuring that out. But as far as closing arguments go, the Buckeyes couldn't have made a stronger case.

In a stunningly easy 59-0 victory over No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State came as close to playing a perfect game as you'll likely see. Despite a new starting quarterback, the Buckeyes eviscerated a Badgers defense that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the FBS. They turned Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon into a plodder and held him to just 76 yards on 26 carries. They piled up 558 yards and did not commit a turnover. Even Cameron Johnston's punting was spectacular.

"If that wasn't one of the four best football teams tonight," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said amid the celebratory postgame confetti, "then I don't know what you're looking for."

What made the performance all the more remarkable was how Ohio State overcame some potentially crippling adversity to get it done.

Starting quarterback J.T. Barrett broke his ankle last week against Michigan and watched the game from a wheeled cart on the sideline. Yet the Buckeyes just kept rolling with first-time starter Cardale Jones.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesFirst-time starter Cardale Jones led Ohio State to the Big Ten title. He completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores and was named the game's MVP.
Jones finished 12-of-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game's MVP. Jones said he didn't feel nervous going into the game, despite debuting with a championship and possible playoff spot on the line.

"He's just Cardale -- he's always just a happy, fun, silly guy," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "We knew we had to raise our level of play around him, and it ended up he played an amazing game. I don't know how he managed all that, but he did."

Ohio State has somehow managed to replace two star quarterbacks on the fly this season. At this point, you have to believe fourth-string quarterback Stephen Collier would be a Heisman candidate if he were thrust into action.

"It's the culture," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I think Cardale understands that he had a responsibility to not just the team in general but that [quarterback] room. He had two guys in that room that had done amazing things at this position for this university, and he took that responsibility very, very seriously. He prepared as hard as I've seen a quarterback prepare this week."

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes defense -- which had struggled against top Big Ten running backs this season -- managed to check Gordon and not allow much in the passing game, either. The defensive effort came just days after the team attended the funeral of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who was a pallbearer at the funeral, wore Karageorge's No. 53 for the game and had one of the best games of his career.

"I felt like we had a guardian angel out there," defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. "Kosta was our guide. We went out there and did it for him."

Jones won the MVP trophy, but the honor could have just as easily gone to several Buckeyes, including receiver Devin Smith (four catches, 137 yards, three touchdowns), tailback Ezekiel Elliott (220 rushing yards, two scores) or any number of defensive standouts. Everyone played an All-American. That's how complete a performance it was.

The question remains: Was it enough? Head coach Urban Meyer said the selection committee has a tough job ahead of it.

"All I can speak to is, I've been around teams that have competed for and won national championships," Meyer said. "This team -- the way it's playing right now -- is one of the top teams in America."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was a little more forceful in his comments and said the Buckeyes absolutely ought to be in the playoff. Asked what separates them from TCU and Baylor, Smith answered, "We're better."

"The football people on that committee, who watched that game through football eyes, know that they saw a championship team that deserves to be in," Smith said.

During the fourth quarter, Ohio State fans began chanting "We want 'Bama!'" After the game, Jones and a handful of players celebrated with roses atop their ears; the only way the Buckeyes are going to the Rose Bowl is if they play Oregon. If the selection committee keeps them at No. 5, they're likely headed to the Cotton Bowl.

The destination didn't matter so much in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's game. Ohio State had won a championship -- its first Big Ten title under Meyer -- while avenging last year's crushing loss here to Michigan State.

"I really can't explain that feeling," Jones said. "I want that feeling again. Me and my teammates, we would do anything for that feeling again."

The Buckeyes might or might not get their chance to win another championship this season. But they sure presented an airtight closing argument.

The Cal Lu connection

December, 5, 2014
Dec 5
Dave Aranda was working the graveyard shift as a truck stop security guard when he first visited California Lutheran University.

The former standout linebacker at Redlands High School in Southern California was set adrift in life when a chronic shoulder injury derailed his playing career. He attempted to join the Navy, but he couldn’t pass the physical with a bad shoulder. He didn’t care much for school at the time. He coached the JV squad at Redlands and made ends meet by finding solitary work in the shadows of a town ripped from a Steinbeck novel, built up around orange groves and rail yards.

"I was lost a little bit," Aranda said. "I had the midnight shift. It was crazy. I had honestly forgotten about all that. It almost seems like another life."

[+] EnlargeDave Aranda
Courtesy of California Lutheran UniversityWisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's time at Cal Lutheran was hindered by injuries, but that allowed him to get an early start on his coaching career.
Aranda’s new life, and the path to his current job as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, started at Cal Lutheran. He visited with an old high school teammate because he wanted to play football again. He missed it enough to pay the five-figure tuition bill to give his shoulder and the game another shot.

Their host for the weekend was a charismatic sophomore wide receiver. He was a quick-witted man-about-campus, a future MENSA member who put his broadcast-worthy voice to work as the public address announcer for basketball games on campus. During timeouts, he was known to jump up on the scorer’s table and dance to whatever music filled the small gymnasium. That was Tom Herman, now the offensive coordinator at Ohio State.

Just shy of 20 years later, both men are rising stars in the college football coaching world as they approach 40 years old. Both oversee units that rank in the top five nationally in their respective tasks. Herman's offense scores 44.1 points per game. Aranda’s defense allows 16.8 per game. Herman is a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant. Aranda is not, but frankly, should be. On Saturday night, the former college teammates will go head-to-head in a battle for the Big Ten championship.

Cal Lutheran’s campus, home to roughly 2,800 undergrads, occupies less than half of a square mile of former ranch land in Thousand Oaks, 40 miles up the coastline from Los Angeles. Somehow, its Div. III football program has turned that plot of land into the country’s most unlikely breeding ground for coaches.

The "Cal Lu guys" can be found all across North America. Will Plemons, a former teammate of Aranda and Herman’s, coaches the defensive line for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts. There is Denver Broncos secondary coach Cory Undlin and New York Giants quarterback coach Danny Langsdorf. Both started their careers as Kingsmen in the '90s. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (’72) is the senior statesman of the group, which includes dozens of other coaches scattered throughout college and professional leagues.

"There’s been a bunch of us," Herman said. "I take a lot of pride in Cal Lutheran, and I think Dave does, as well. ... I don’t know why there are so many of us. I wish I had a sexy answer for that, but I don’t."

Humble beginnings

In the spring of 1958 -- a few months before the words "Cradle of Coaches" made their debut in newsprint in reference to Miami University in Ohio -- Cal Lutheran’s Board of Governors gathered for the first time on what would become their new campus. They decided then that the school would open its doors three years later. Two years after that, in 1963, the Dallas Cowboys asked if they could hold summer training camp at the new school, and a connection to football was born.

The roots of Cal Lutheran’s massive coaching tree start with Bob Shoup, the program’s first head coach. The NAIA Hall of Famer won a national championship for the school in 1971. In his 28 seasons, he coached 186 players who would go on to coach at some level. That is nearly one out of every four men that put on a jersey during Shoup’s career.

Cal Lutheran has a strong education major. Many of its graduates go on to be high school teachers, and the part of that population that played for Shoup usually decided to coach at their future schools.

"There were a lot of teachers and high school coaches that came out of here in the early days," said Ben McEnroe, the school’s current head coach and an assistant during Herman and Aranda’s time. "It’s just really part of the culture here."

Aranda’s high school coach was a Cal Lutheran graduate. Herman was introduced to the school by a high school baseball coach who played for the Kingsmen. That culture, and the resulting web of high school coaches that stretches across California, might not have tapped into the state’s rich supply of high school superstars (it’s a Div. III program after all), but it helped set up a pipeline for a particular type of prospect.

"Our approach when I was there," said Scott Squires, the man who recruited both Herman and Aranda, "was we always want to recruit guys that loved football. If we got guys that really loved the game, we knew we could push them."

Squires’ plan created a pack of gym rats. Cal Lutheran became a haven for undersized football junkies. They crowded into a weight room that was roughly the size of two small offices stapled together. Position meetings before practice were held in converted chicken coops. ("They were all plastered up, but yeah, that’s what they used to be," Aranda said.) Then the team would jog down a half-mile gravel road to get to its practice field. And mostly, they were thrilled for the opportunity. When Aranda toured the no-frills facilities and saw the players’ intensity, he knew he had found his tribe.

It was normal for the guys to hang out and break down defensive schemes in their dorm rooms at night and draw up plays during class, planting the seeds of future coaching careers.

[+] EnlargeTom Herman
Courtesy of California Lutheran UniversityOhio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman had 13 knee surgeries at Cal Lutheran. He is a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant.
Herman, who transferred to Cal Lutheran from UC Davis in search of playing time, loved the game enough to keep coming back after 13 knee surgeries. At one point, doctors had to grow a piece of his cartilage in a lab to create enough of it to properly patch the joint. He rarely practiced during the week as a senior, then made a handful of circus catches each Saturday on his way to an all-conference season.

Aranda’s shoulder issues tested his will to play, too. He missed the start of his freshman season while recovering from surgery. In one of his first practices back in pads, he and a lead-blocking fullback collided with so much intensity that he split his helmet in two -- mashed the face mask and cracked it right down the seam.

"That’s my one claim to fame of playing football," he said about the mangled headgear. "I loved the game so much, but I never played. I was always injured. I think I lasted about one more day after that and I was done."

Budding careers

Injuries let Aranda get an early start on his coaching career. He hung around at Cal Lutheran and started working as a student assistant coach. Most of his free time was devoted to scraping together enough gas money to drive to USC, UCLA or Arizona State so he could pick the minds of their defensive coaches. By the time he was wrapping up his philosophy degree as a senior, he was promoted to Cal Lutheran’s linebacker coach.

The background in philosophy turned Aranda into a unique coach. He doesn't lead with the same defiant confidence as most coaches, instead contemplating new ways to solve offenses up until the last possible minute during a week of prep work.

"Much like in a philosophy discussion, there’s an argument," he explained. "What is the central major point there? What is holding up that major point? You have to break it down piece by piece. You’ve gotta be all encompassing, man."

When he wanted his secondary at Cal Lutheran to flip from a backpedal to running faster, he showed them video of top baseball base stealers ripping their arm through and flipping their hips. When he wanted to teach his linebackers to gather themselves before making a hit, they watched tape of steer wrestlers leaping onto cattle.

Herman took his motivational cues from Squires, their Cal Lutheran coach. He still uses a handful of the sayings that helped him keep going during his playing days. His experience with injuries has helped him encourage and empathize with struggling players. His contagious personality let him take control over every room he walked into as he skipped around the country from one coaching job to the next.

"Both of them are just really smart guys," Squires said. "Tom could be running a major corporation if he wanted to, but they wanted to coach."

Both men left Thousand Oaks for Texas to begin their coaching careers. They met as opponents for the first time as graduate assistants for Texas and Texas Tech. Herman and his Longhorns won that matchup. The following year Herman moved east to Sam Houston State, but visited Aranda in Lubbock so the two could help each other prepare for the season.

"I drove 10 hours from Huntsville, and I slept on his couch for about three days there," Herman said. "Over the years we’ve stayed in touch and always traded ideas."

The Cal Lu connection has continued to help its graduates after they leave campus. Aranda and his former teammate Plemons, now in the CFL, traded ideas regularly when they both coached defenses in the WAC. When Aranda’s Hawaii defense found a way to bottle up Nevada star Colin Kaepernick, Plemons (who was at Fresno State at the time) said they talked for hours to dissect how he did it. Aranda and Herman continued to spend long summer days together explaining the current trends on their side of the ball to help each other get ahead of the curve during their equally fast ascents through the coaching ranks.

The Cal Lutheran dinner reunions at coaching conventions are always well-attended events, and usually serve as a reminder of how little has changed about the solitary truck stop security guard and the public address announcer who liked to dance on table tops.

"We’d go to the coaches' conventions and Dave would be the guy that would grab one coach and take him to a coffee shop or up to the room and they’d grind out football for two days. You’d never see him," Squires, their old coach, said. "Tom would be the guy down in the lobby shaking everybody’s hands like he was a politician going for a job. By the end he would know the name of everyone in the building."

Aranda and Herman are polar opposites in personality, but proof that the West Coast’s budding breeding ground for coaches can shape all types into future successes. The common threads of a love for football and Cal Lutheran education have landed them in the same spot.

In Indianapolis, two of the country’s hottest young coordinators will match wits for a Big Ten championship. Their fellow alums, true to football-junkie form, are giddy about the chess match that will unfold. No matter what happens, a tiny campus in Southern California and its continent-wide coaching tree will have a reason to celebrate.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State lived through its own personal horror film, and it came out on the other side to discover it can survive the loss of a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback.

Now, it is going to have to endure a sequel.

The Buckeyes were written off after losing Braxton Miller during training camp in August and then dropping an early game with his replacement under center, J.T. Barrett, who turned out to be every bit as productive as his predecessor. He might have been even better in some ways as he rewrote the record books and kicked off his own stiff-arm campaign while leading the No. 6 Buckeyes back into position for a spot in the four-team field for the College Football Playoff.

But then, Ohio State's archnemesis struck again, and this season that description doesn't fit Michigan, with the 42-28 rivalry win almost an afterthought after the villainous Injury Bug returned and ended another quarterback's season with a fractured ankle that will require surgery for Barrett.

"He's for sure out," coach Urban Meyer said. "We've had two quarterbacks go down, and we're going to find out if we earn our coaching stripes and do a good job getting [Cardale] Jones ready to go. … We've got to go on, and we've got a lot of confidence in the guy that's going to be doing it.

"[But] obviously, we lost a Heisman candidate today."

Few teams could even think about issuing a statement like that twice in the same season, but that is the situation Meyer and the Buckeyes are now facing heading into next week's Big Ten title game and beyond.

In terms of the playoff, Ohio State was already going to be an interesting test case for the selection committee after Barrett's struggles in his second career start contributed to an ugly loss to Virginia Tech before he developed into the nation's most prolific touchdown artist -- adding three before leaving the Horseshoe on a cart Saturday afternoon. Now his absence could force a completely different examination of the résumé for the Buckeyes, who are down to their third-string quarterback heading into the postseason.

Of course, there is a more pressing matter than rankings or the playoff field this week, and Ohio State can still send a message that it belongs among the nation's best by claiming a conference championship with a win against another ranked opponent. But even before leaving the stadium to enjoy a third consecutive win against the Wolverines that capped yet another perfect regular season in Big Ten play under Meyer, the Buckeyes were already delivering the same message about their offense moving forward that they did three months ago.

"Obviously we're upset we lost J.T.," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "He's a warrior, he's done a lot for us this year and had a great year. But a lot of people were probably thinking the same thing as they're thinking now when Braxton went down.

"So one guy, even though he's had a great year and we love him, that's not going to change our team completely."

The Buckeyes actually did change when Miller was ruled out for the season after re-injuring his shoulder in August, emphasizing the passing game more thanks to Barrett's accuracy and decision-making and watching him break the Big Ten single-season touchdown record along the way.

It's certainly going to be a tall order for Jones to duplicate that type of relief effort, particularly since he's not nearly as sharp with the football as Barrett. But he's a load to tackle at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, brings mobility to the quarterback position and has also been in the program long enough for both Jones to know the offense and the coaching staff to understand how he fits in it.

And with the two Heisman contenders ahead of him now officially out for the rest of the season, it is up to Jones to supply the happy ending if there's going to be another for the Buckeyes.

"We had a guy, to put it in battlefield terms, we had a guy and his rifle go down. Somebody has to pick it up and keep fighting," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I wouldn't have asked for this, certainly, but this game is very crazy at times -- throws you a lot of curveballs -- and you've got to be able to adapt and adjust. I'm sure we'll be able to do that."

Ohio State has done it once. Now it will have to deliver an encore.

Urban Meyer knows you have eyes. He knows what those eyes see every Saturday. And he knows that pulling wool over those eyes isn't a wise move.

Meyer knows that what he said five weeks ago -- that Braxton Miller will be Ohio State's starting quarterback when he returns to the field in 2015 -- no longer has credibility. J.T. Barrett's emergence in relief of the injured Miller has changed the discussion. To suggest otherwise would come off as both stubborn and insulting.

Those qualities haven't stopped coaches before.

Some coaches would stick to their original statement even if Barrett leads Ohio State to a Big Ten championship -- something Miller, despite more individual accolades than any Big Ten player in history, has never done -- and possibly a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. They would chalk it up to player protection, loyalty or some other half-baked reason that avoids reality.

Meyer's change of tune Monday about the future of Ohio State's quarterback position is not only fair to the fans but also to the two players involved.

"Competition brings out the best, and I'm really excited to have two really good quarterbacks next year," Meyer said Monday. "That's the plan. I think they're both excellent quarterbacks. Excellent quarterbacks. And we'll worry about that day when it comes."

This is the new reality for Ohio State, thanks to Barrett's rapid rise in his first season on the field. He is not a stand-in or a placeholder. He is the nation's second most efficient passer (172.9) and ranks fifth nationally in both touchdown passes (26) and QBR (84.2).

He's also the best quarterback in the Big Ten this season, as he showed Saturday night at Spartan Stadium. The Big Ten's star running backs might prevent Barrett from following Miller as the league's offensive player of the year, but Barrett still will collect his share of awards come December.

Meyer on Monday likened Barrett's rise to that of Alex Smith, Meyer's former quarterback at Utah, saying, "J.T.'s made incredible jumps as far as how he handles his business, and accuracy of passing last week was fantastic."

Miller said after his injury in August that he intends to return to Ohio State in 2015. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman on Monday said he "absolutely" expects Miller to follow through on his pledge and "can't even imagine" the possibility of Miller transferring. (Miller is on track to graduate and could be eligible immediately next fall if he transferred.)

If Miller returns, a quarterback competition will and should ensue. Could it be uncomfortable at times? Sure. Players as decorated as Miller rarely have to re-earn their jobs. Barrett, meanwhile, looks up to Miller.

But opening things up is better than handing the keys to Miller just because he's a great player.

Coaches often state that starters don't lose their jobs because of injuries. It's true in many cases, but mostly because the replacement can't come close to measuring up.

What makes this unique is Barrett, while a different quarterback than Miller, is doing the same extraordinary things for Ohio State's offense. He makes good decisions, gets his teammates involved and shows tremendous poise on the road.

Right now, it's hard to envision Ohio State's offense without Barrett in 2015, when the team will have national title aspirations. But if Miller outperforms Barrett, he should get the nod.

As Meyer said, there's no need to worry about the situation now. It's a long way off, and Ohio State has immediate business, like beating an improved Minnesota team on the road and winning its first Big Ten title since 2009.

But by publicly acknowledging the obvious, Meyer sends a clear, truthful message to his team and the fans about what should be one of the nation's top offseason storylines.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first Ohio State game plan of the season was light on offensive variety.

It didn’t include many changes in personnel. There weren’t a lot of adjustments that could be made as the Buckeyes focused largely on doing just a few things well instead of risking the possibility of spreading themselves too thin.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY SportsLed by quarterback J.T. Barrett, Ohio State has scored 50 or more points in four straight games.
They were inexperienced at quarterback, starting what amounted to be an entirely rebuilt offensive line and counting on a handful of skill players who had barely been used in meaningful action.

Fast forward half a season and nearly every part of that formula has changed dramatically, most notably starting with the playbook the Buckeyes now have at their disposal that is making it seemingly more difficult to prepare for them every week.

“Just look at the play sheet against Navy compared to now,” coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s 70 percent more there than what it was.

“I think the quarterback, offensive line, the receivers have all opened up the playbook because they're much more mature. They’ve grown up fast.”

That has challenged the coaches to keep pace with the rapid development. And they’ve responded by continually adding new wrinkles, expanding the personnel rotation and then watching as the young Buckeyes soak it all up and wring out an offensive deluge on helpless opponents, scoring 50 points or more in four straight games.

A first-time starter in that disjointed win over Navy and a subsequent loss to Virginia Tech, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is now brushing elbows statistically with the top quarterbacks in the nation. Perhaps most impressively, he’s rewriting the record books that have Braxton Miller’s name all over them and arguably playing at an even higher level than the injured two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year thanks to an accurate arm, good decision-making and underrated athleticism as a rusher.

The offensive line that moved its only returning starter to a new position while breaking in four first-time contributors has now established chemistry and is once again blowing open holes for the spread attack. And behind those blockers, Ohio State is cutting loose a host of speedy threats at running back and wide receiver, trusting them with both the football and new assignments just about every game -- like the sparkling new Wildcat package that Dontre Wilson unveiled in another blowout last weekend against Rutgers.

That may just be the tip of the iceberg on the expanded play sheet, which offensive coordinator Tom Herman isn’t afraid to keep building on as long as the Buckeyes prove they can keep handling it.

“It’s the same offense,” Herman said. “It’s just different adjustments, different usage of personnel and better developed players. We’re better up front, we’re better at quarterback, we’re better at the skill positions. The sign of a good team is continual improvement, and I think we’re on that track right now. To say it’s a different offense, it’s not, but the players are certainly coming into their own.

“We’ll keep growing, obviously. But I think right now we’re in a good place.”

The Buckeyes have certainly come a long way in a hurry since that early loss, and the journey has been so dizzyingly quick, it can be easy to forget that the roster is still young.

That may mean mistakes may inevitably pop back up as the level of competition goes up against better defenses like Penn State’s on Saturday or in the huge showdown at Michigan State on Nov. 8. Of course, it might also suggest that the Buckeyes are only just scratching the surface of what they might be capable of doing offensively.

“As long as you have good checkers, you can keep going and going,” Meyer said. “That's where you just have to keep going.

“The better your checkers, [the options] are endless.”

And that is making the checkerboard increasingly difficult to defend.
Programs like Ohio State are like Air Force One: They're never supposed to disappear from the radar screen.

There are several places in college football where the national spotlight fixates, and Ohio Stadium is one. When Urban Meyer is prowling the sidelines, the glare is even brighter.

But Ohio State has been somewhat of a forgotten team since 11:54 p.m. ET on Sept. 6. That's the moment when Virginia Tech completed a 35-21 win against the Buckeyes in Columbus.

It wasn't just the shock of the loss or that it marked Ohio State's third defeat in four games after a 24-0 start under Meyer. It was that Ohio State fulfilled the doom-and-gloom outlook many had after quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury in August.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett has really stepped up the past four games, throwing 17 TDs to one pick and rushing for 263 yards and three TDs.
The Buckeyes stalled against Bud Foster's complex, aggressive defense. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, making his first home start, completed 9 of 29 pass attempts with three interceptions and a touchdown. An offensive line featuring four new starters surrendered seven sacks, and the Buckeyes averaged just 2.7 yards per rush. The supposedly upgraded defense showed the same old warts against the pass and especially on third down (9 of 17 converted).

It was one of those worst-fears-fulfilled kinds of nights. The loss, while surprising, followed a narrative many had mapped out the moment Miller's labrum tore during an innocuous throw in practice.

So Ohio State became a forgotten team nationally and, to a degree, in the Big Ten -- as crazy as that sounds.

Well, it's time to take notice again. No Big Ten team is playing better than No. 13 Ohio State. And few quarterbacks nationally are playing better than Barrett.

Since the Virginia Tech loss, the Buckeyes' numbers are staggering. They've outscored their opponents 224-69. They set a team record with four consecutive games of 50 or more points and tied a team mark with four straight games of 500 or more yards.

Barrett's four-game line: 1,170 pass yards, 17 touchdowns, one interception (none in the past three games), 68.3 percent completions, 263 rush yards, three touchdowns.

"He's throwing it on time, throwing it early, trusting what he sees, directing traffic, going through his progressions, not getting freaked out with a little pressure," offensive coordinator Tom Herman recently told me.

He has accounted for at least four touchdowns in all four games, the longest active streak in the country and the longest for a Big Ten quarterback since former Purdue star Kyle Orton in 2004, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Offensive line coach Ed Warinner once again worked his magic, simplifying things so a group that looked like a liability in Week 2 has become a strength.

"Until you understand Algebra 1, you can't take Algebra 2," Warinner told me. "You just have to be patient and trust that playing hard and having good fundamentals will carry you through. Eventually, you can build on that with your changeups, your exceptions, your adjustments.

"People get caught up in thinking, 'I'm a really good coach. I've got these guys who never played and look at all this stuff I told them.' And you don't get anything done."

Ohio State also is getting it done on defense during the win streak: 12 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, eight interceptions. The Buckeyes held both Maryland and Rutgers well below their averages for yards and points. They suddenly rank in the top 25 nationally in points allowed (24th), opponent adjusted QBR (21st), pass yards allowed (16th) and first downs allowed (20th).

"We're playing at a pretty high level right now," Meyer said of his defense.

But what about the competition? Ohio State hasn't beaten a ranked team during its run. Unlike teams in the SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12, the Buckeyes' schedule has allowed them to regain their mojo. But you play who you play, and Ohio State has destroyed everything in its path.

It's all pointing to the Nov. 8 showdown at No. 8 Michigan State, which hasn't lost at home since 2012. Both teams won 56-17 on Saturday, but Ohio State seems to be playing at a higher level. The Buckeyes are No. 5 nationally in ESPN's Football Power Index, which measures team strength as a future predictor.

According to FPI, Ohio State has a 48.5 percent chance to win the Big Ten, the third-highest percentage of any Power 5 team and by far the highest percentage in the league, as defending champion Michigan State has just a 23.7 percent chance. Yes, we all know FPI has never been high on the Spartans, who remain the team to beat in this league until proved otherwise.

But the numbers favor Ohio State, which, according to FPI, is the one-loss team from a Power 5 conference with the best chance (27 percent) to finish with just the sole blemish.

So everyone must pay attention to the Buckeyes again, including the playoff selection committee. Virginia Tech is a bad loss that seems to be getting worse. But the circumstances surrounding Ohio State with Miller's injury should be considered, if the committee members stay true to their word.

Ohio State has few résumé-boosting opportunities left: trips to Michigan State and Minnesota, and the Big Ten title game.

But if the Buckeyes continue on this trajectory, they should be in a familiar spot: playing for championships.
With his teammates lining up to pat his helmet or offer compliments, J.T. Barrett just jogged silently through the praise and waited for his center after Saturday’s final touchdown. He didn’t even spit his mouthpiece out until he reached the bench.

Then, with two minutes left in the game, the Ohio State quarterback began taking practice snaps. He didn't joke, didn't smile, even when the game was virtually won -- Ohio State 34, Navy 17 -- and it looked as if his day might be over.

“J.T. is a very serious guy,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “He goes about his business, and he’s a pro. That’s how he acts.”

Nearly 1,500 miles away in Barrett’s hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas – a town whose claim to fame is a 54-foot cascade of man-made falls – his past high school coach and teammates weren’t surprised. That’s always been J.T., they said.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesThose who know him best weren't surprised by J.T. Barrett's performance on Saturday.
This is the Barrett they grew up with, the one who missed his senior season with a torn ACL but still attended practice with a jersey on and a helmet by his side. It’s the Barrett who shocked coaches as a sixth-grader when he hurled a pass 50 yards at camp. And it’s the Barrett who never takes his focus off the game – even when it’s in hand.

“That’s J.T. right there, man,” said Jim Garfield, who coached Barrett on the Rider Raiders. “He’s all business. He’s going to operate and he’s going to do all the things the staff ask him to do. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Business-like and calm and collected were the adjectives attached to nearly every conversation about Barrett, from Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and TV analysts on down to Buckeyes teammates and high school friends. It’s just about the first thing to notice in the redshirt freshman.

Barrett kept an even tone around a scrum of reporters following Saturday’s Navy game. He surveyed the room, maintained eye contact and spoke about an interception the same way he talked about a touchdown.

Was there a time you said to yourself you’d be fine after the pick?

“Not really,” Barrett said.

He didn’t need to; he knew he’d be fine. In the past, he’d prepare for situations and plays by envisioning them all in his backyard. He was ready for anything; a change in scenery wasn’t going to alter that.

“He is a phenom; there’s no other way to describe it,” said Brandon Williams, his friend and high school receiver. “His mind just works in so many different ways that you couldn’t even imagine. You could play the kid in Connect Four, and he will not let you win. He will win no matter what it takes – if it’s him that has to get the ball or the next guy down the line. His leadership, you wouldn’t believe. When he talks, you get chills down your spine.”

The Buckeyes are hoping for every bit of that from Barrett this weekend. Virginia Tech’s defense was ranked No. 4 nationally in total defense last season – and it’s sure to be a tougher matchup for Barrett than Navy. But Barrett’s former high school teammates just laughed when asked if Barrett would be at all intimidated or panicked.

He's a professional, they said, and he approaches every game -- and every drive -- the same way.

Former Rider running back Domanic Thrasher recalled the time Barrett calmed the team in the huddle and led a game-winning touchdown drive with 56 seconds left. Williams remembered the time the Rider staff signaled a play to the offense by holding their arms up as if there were a touchdown – literal name of the play: “Greatest Football Play Ever” -- right before Barrett heaved a long score to end the first half. And Garfield, the coach, can remember the way Barrett always managed to stay upbeat, even in the face of deficits -- or a season-ending injury as a senior.

“In pressure situations, you would never see a downside on him,” Garfield said. “He was always a positive and matter-of-fact person. And, after that injury, he was like a coach on the sideline.”

Ohio State fans haven’t seen the entire Barrett yet. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman wants to bring the first-year starter along gradually, after all, so shorter passes and an established run game were the Buckeyes’ backbone Saturday.

But, as season progresses and Barrett becomes more accustomed to the offense, those who know him best say the Big Ten is in for a surprise. The 19-year-old is all business, and he still has a long career ahead.

“You really haven’t seen a whole lot just yet,” Garfield added. "J.T. is a kid that got himself ready for this path. He can handle anything."

Emergency plan: OSU's backup QBs

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19

With the news that Ohio State QB Braxton Miller is out for the season with an injury to his throwing shoulder, it’s time to get to know who will be taking snaps for the Buckeyes this fall.

J.T. Barrett
  • The redshirt freshman only ascended to the No. 2 spot over the weekend, just in time to be in position to take the reins of the spread offense if Miller's shoulder is seriously damaged. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Barrett has the weakest arm of the three top quarterbacks on the roster, and the coaching staff has had no problem admitting that because he makes up for it with above-average tools everywhere else across the board. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman has praised Barrett since the moment he signed for his cerebral approach to the game, pinpoint accuracy and the sort of athleticism required to run Ohio State's offense even after suffering an ACL injury as a senior in high school. At this point, the Buckeyes elevated Barrett to the backup spot simply because, as Herman said Monday, "the offense moves better when he's in there."
Cardale Jones
  • With his impressive size at 6-5 and 250 pounds, plenty of speed and the ability to overpower defenders as a rusher, Jones looked like the heir apparent in claiming the backup job during spring practice while Miller was on the shelf following surgery. The redshirt sophomore has a rocket for a right arm, but it doesn't always fire in the right direction and inconsistent accuracy has been regularly cited as the biggest hurdle for Jones in the passing game. He has a slight edge in experience with the program after enrolling in January 2012, putting him on campus for the entirety of coach Urban Meyer's tenure with the Buckeyes, but he has attempted only a pair of passes in live action with one completion for 3 yards. He has showed off his mobility during his few chances to play, rushing 17 times for 132 yards with a touchdown.
The last time Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Michigan's Devin Gardner shared a field, the two quarterbacks combined for 10 touchdowns and 747 yards of offense in a wildly entertaining shootout at Michigan Stadium.

It proved to be the end of Gardner's season, as a foot injury sidelined him for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the first part of spring practice in March. Miller went on to suffer his first two losses under coach Urban Meyer. He injured his throwing shoulder in the Orange Bowl and underwent surgery in Feb. 21, limiting his throwing in spring practice.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesShoulder surgery limited Ohio State's Braxton Miller, but the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year is still finding ways to improve.
Both quarterbacks have delivered record performances for their teams. Miller owns back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year awards and could become the league's first three-time winner this fall. Gardner has been a quarterback of extremes -- prodigiously productive in some games, bafflingly bad in others.

The final chapter for both players arrives this fall. Before that lies a pivotal summer.

Miller's first priority is to return to full strength. But some of his most important work in the coming months will be in the film room.

"In the digital age we live in, video is so easy to come by, so he can study whoever he wants," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told "Preferably, let's study us first and figure out the ins and outs of our offense. And then when you have extra time or want to take a break from that, let's study some defenses that we'll face this season. And beyond that, the next in the pecking order is why don't you study some other offenses, study some other quarterbacks."

Two quarterbacks Herman wants Miller to study likely will compete with him for national honors in 2014: Florida State's Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who might be the best pro quarterback prospect in the college ranks this season.

"What are those guys doing really well?" Herman said. "Is there anything you can glean from watching them on the field that might help your game?"

Herman had a similar plan for Miller last summer, encouraging him to watch Clemson's Tajh Boyd -- "That kid was a really good player," Herman said.

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan QB Devin Gardner, coming off a foot injury, struggled in the spring, but still looks on track to start the season opener.
Gardner went through most of the spring at less than 100 percent and struggled in the spring game, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception. He's still learning the offense under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, and head coach Brady Hoke praised his consistency for much of the session.

But Hoke still discusses Michigan's quarterback situation by mentioning two names -- Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris. Many question whether Michigan's quarterback competition is real or imagined. Gardner has 16 starts at quarterback, while Morris has just one (the bowl game).

But unlike Miller, Gardner has to confirm himself as the top option when preseason camp begins in August.

"He has an advantage," Hoke told "I wouldn't make that mistake. Because of the experience, playing a lot of snaps, being in a lot of big games. But at the same time, Shane, how he handled himself in the bowl game, how he was composed and how he approached the game, is encouraging."

Hoke wants both quarterbacks to not only retain what they learned in the spring but grow as leaders this summer.

"The message is we can't accept the players how they are right now," Hoke said.

The same applies to Miller, as good as he has been at times the past two seasons. His approach to rehab and film study will determine whether he -- and potentially Ohio State -- takes the next step in 2014.

"He's on fire right now, doing a great job with it from what I understand," Herman said. "The things that he is now able to talk to me about on the phone when I'm out on the road recruiting or when I see him in the building, you can tell he's poured himself into it, which is good."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Whether Braxton Miller was healthy enough to throw a football or not, the first few entries on the spring checklist didn’t require him to do it.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOhio State QB Braxton Miller will work on the mental side of football this spring.
Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off the priorities a few days before Miller underwent minor surgery on his throwing shoulder last month. And while there might still be mechanical improvements to be made with his star quarterback, they were almost an afterthought as the two set the course for his last season with the program.

Herman stressed even more dedication to film study. He wanted Miller to know opposing defenses inside and out and be ready to diagram them on the whiteboard whenever he might be prompted to do so. The Buckeyes expect the spread offense to be second nature to him heading into his third season operating the system. Miller tacked one more thing on himself, making it clear that he anticipated becoming a better leader than he has been.

Nothing on this list requires Miller to actually toss a football. So it shouldn’t really matter that he’s expected to be limited physically when camp opens for Ohio State on Tuesday.

“I think probably as improved as he got in the mental side of playing quarterback [in 2013], he still can get a whole lot better,” Herman said. “He can probably make that same leap this year and still have work to do.

“Just the constant studying of the game, studying of defenses and the studying of our plays now that we’ve kind of done the same thing for two years in a row. ... I think he’s getting to that point where all that stuff is slowing down, and he needs to stay on that path.”

Miller has largely made the journey look pretty easy over the past couple pf seasons, steadily improving his numbers, piling up victories and collecting enough individual trophies to fill several mantles in his parents’ house. But for all of his personal success and the 24-game winning streak the Buckeyes put together following the arrival of coach Urban Meyer, there have also been a handful of moments that Herman can point to as evidence that Miller isn’t a finished product yet.

He doesn’t have to go back too far to find tapes to drive the point home. There were a pair of uneven outings in Ohio State’s losses in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, performances where Miller alternated between his trademark brilliance and moments of indecision or uncertainty that proved costly.

The key for Herman, though, is that those losses weren't because Miller didn’t possess the fundamentals to take his game to a higher level as a passer. The Buckeyes emphasized fine-tuning Miller’s mechanics during spring practice a year ago, but even if he was completely healthy now, the focus has shifted to making sure he’s comfortable enough mentally to use them.

“When you know what you’re doing, know what you’re seeing and what everybody else around you is doing, it’s easy to play with great fundamentals because you’re relaxed,” Herman said. “If you’ve ever stood back there and tried to make a decision in 1.9 seconds and see the things that he has to see and process that kind of information that fast, there’s a tremendous learning curve to that.

“I think fundamentally, the more we keep attacking that [mental] side of it, the more consistent he’ll be -- because he knows how to do that.”

Miller doesn’t need to prove anything from a physical aspect this spring, and his surgery will limit the chances to do it anyway. But that might just give him more time to spend on items Herman already had at the top of the camp checklist.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There’s no escaping the history for Braxton Miller.

It was there sitting on a table just off the court at Value City Arena on Wednesday night, another Tribune Silver Football with his name on it to honor the Big Ten’s best player.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images Braxton Miller holds the Silver Football awarded to the Big Ten's most valuable player.
It was echoed over the speakers during a presentation at midcourt as the Ohio State quarterback was identified as only the fourth two-time winner of the prestigious award, just before he and everybody else were reminded he could become the first to claim it three times.

Even when he’s not showing up to collect some hardware, Miller only has to walk through the hallways of the practice facility on campus to see where he now ranks among the all-time greats to have suited up for the Buckeyes.

Miller doesn’t need the reminders, though, and it’s what he has yet to accomplish that at least played some part in his decision to return for one more season with the program.

“I walked past a board the other day and my name is right under Troy Smith,” Miller said. “I texted him, ‘Hey man, check this out. I’m right behind you, man.’ He said, ‘That’s a good look. Keep it up.’

“I’ve just got to keep putting in work. … I mean, he’s got the big thing. He went to the [national championship game]. He’s got the Heisman. I’m working towards that, too.”

Those two entries are about the only items missing from Miller’s résumé, and while trophies might not have been the top priority on his list of pros and cons, they are clearly motivating him now that his mind has been made up about his future.

Miller stressed the importance of getting a degree and referenced how much he still has to learn about the mental side of the game as key factors for him. While he declined to specify what grade he received as part of his feedback from the draft advisory board, he called it “one of the best evaluations you can get.”

After struggling down the stretch as a passer as the Buckeyes fell out of national-title contention with a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game and then dropped the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, his professional stock certainly seemed to take a hit. But Miller indicated that he was leaning toward returning all along, and there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of benefits in doing so.

“There wasn’t a big thought about [leaving],” Miller said. “I always knew I was eventually going to make that decision and I was going to come back. … I just sat down with the coaches, observed everything, made sure that I was making the right decision. I went over everything, and it wasn’t too hard of a decision.

“Coming back, you want to accomplish things that you didn’t accomplish in your first three years and I feel like I left some little things out on the field and there’s a lot of achievements I can still go do. I can achieve all of my goals, there’s a lot of things that I think about and that’s why I wanted to come back. I sat down with my coach and my dad and we made the right decision.”

Aside from the chance to rewrite the record books individually, Miller now has a chance to fine-tune his mechanics, improve his grasp of concepts on both sides of the ball and potentially build himself into a high-round draft pick.

For the Buckeyes, the rewards are every bit as obvious. They’ve got a two-time conference player of the year, a multipurpose athlete who has twice finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting and a senior with three years of starting experience returning to lead their high-octane offense as they reload for another shot at a Big Ten title -- or more.

And everybody involved is aware of the kind of legacy they can create together.

“I trusted in the people, including myself and coach [Urban] Meyer and his parents, people that were advising him and the outlets where he was getting his information from, they all kind of pointed in the same direction,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “That was to make sure that he does come back and continue improving on the trajectory that he’s been improving on.

“He’s got a chance, obviously, when he leaves here to set dang near every school record imaginable, every Big Ten record imaginable and win a championship or two. And then, hopefully, he’ll be a first-round draft pick.”

Those potential accomplishments are no secret to Miller, and he’s definitely not shying away from them. If anything, after clutching another Silver Football, the way he’s embracing history appears to be a key part of the reason he’s still sticking around.