Miller's star ready to shine brighter
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Sometimes, in rare circumstances, simply scratching the surface is enough.
Sometimes, an athlete so gifted with physical ability comes along who leans on his natural talents, even without developing all the skills needed at his position, and finishes fifth in the voting for the most prestigious award in his sport.
Somebody still trying to absorb all of the intricacies of his position navigates a learning process without losing a game, operating with something of a stripped-down playbook.
A shy, humble guy, not accustomed to raising his voice and assuming command in the huddle the way a quarterback is traditionally expected to, can still drag his offense to more points than any other team in the conference.
Add it all up and you have what Braxton Miller provided Ohio State last season and, based on the sophomore version on display a year ago, he certainly appears more than capable of delivering the same type of results this fall.
But sometimes, in rare circumstances, simply scratching the surface isn't enough. Even nine months following the end of the season, with a grueling offseason behind them, the Buckeyes are still trying to figure out just how big the iceberg is underneath the tip they already chiseled off and how far their quarterback can take them.
If they don't know exactly how much more they can achieve, they certainly recognize how much deeper they are heading into this season. What does that mean for the program and its brightest star?
It's almost time to find out.
The routine is never entirely the same from year to year, but Tom Herman had even more incentive to freshen up his collection of drills heading into his second season as an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Ohio State.
The message had been delivered quite clearly, both publicly and privately, that Miller had a long way to go in terms of his fundamentals, and coach Urban Meyer was holding his assistants as responsible as the players themselves for addressing the issue.
Miller helped start the process of fine-tuning his footwork, pocket presence and accuracy with a trip to visit quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. shortly after the season ended. Back on campus, Herman was scouring videos from around the country and talking with coaching colleagues in search of tools to add to his practice repertoire that would help clean up the problems that slowed down the Buckeyes at times a year ago.
"It didn't matter if it was a high school guy, if it was put out yesterday, if it was a college guy, NFL guy -- if it was a drill that I thought could help us, I'd try to implement it," Herman said. "If the kids liked it or responded to it well, we kept doing it. If not, we would go back to the drawing board.
"I find myself just making a bunch of them up as we go, just trying to replicate as best you can what a quarterback has to go through, what he's not good at so we can make him better. Let's replicate the situation as best we can in a drill, which is hard for that position."
With a little bit of imagination, though, it can certainly be done.
Miller, fully invested in taking the next step as an athlete and the right ones as a passer, soon found himself avoiding brooms being swung at him by Whitfield on the West Coast, mimicking the arms of a pass-rusher. In Columbus, Herman was throwing bean bags at him to narrow his focus even more, challenging Miller and the rest of the Ohio State quarterbacks to keep their eyes downfield.
Some existing drills remained, including a particular favorite of Miller's that involved taking a three-step drop, flipping his hips open to avoid a make-believe rush, and working on getting his feet in better position while trying to throw on the move.
There were also new additions, such as quickly tapping his feet through a step ladder on the ground, keeping his head up the whole time, and settling himself to make a throw when the miniature obstacles had all been cleared.
"[Herman] just really tries to make it as realistic as what happens in the game," Miller said. "The drills that we do, I'm seeing things that would really happen that way in a game.
"Since that's what really happens, we have to keep working, improving at that so when it comes in a game, it will be natural."
As Miller developed new instincts physically, he also recognized that if he was going to put those mechanics to better use, he would need to develop the same sort of second-nature instincts mentally.
The first year in a new system was trying at times for everybody on the Ohio State offense. The offensive line had to learn different blocking schemes; receivers had to adapt to new concepts and rushers had to absorb the expansion of rushing plays out of the shotgun.
Miller, the focal point of the entire attack, must know it all, and at the same time, be able to decipher what defenses are trying to do to slow down the Buckeyes on every snap.
Walking off the practice field on a scorching August day during training camp, Miller was approached by freshman safety Vonn Bell and gave yet another strong indication that he's starting to see the X's, O's and minor details much more clearly than he ever has before.
"It's crazy, he walked up to me and said, 'Man, how did you know I was blitzing today?'" Miller recounted. "I was just like, it was his body posture.
"I'm getting better at things like that."
The improvement was perhaps inevitable given the additional year to soak up Meyer's and Herman's playbook. But perhaps more important than simply being able to recite all the play calls, and understand where to go with the football on a given down, Miller's improved understanding of the scheme has altered the player-coach dynamic.
Now, not only should Miller be able to execute an assignment better and maximize every snap, he also can figure out why something might not have worked and express it to Herman in a more collaborative way.
"For the most part, we speak the same language," Herman said. "We talk about things defensively, offensively, his fundamentals, how the route should be, how the defense is covering it ... all those things are second nature to him and he doesn't have to think about it. It makes the learning curve that much faster even.
"The more he learns, the more fluent he gets, now the more we can go do. It snowballs a little bit."
As coach and quarterback worked to find a common language, when it came to his teammates, Miller really just needed to find his voice.
Shy, humble and introspective, Miller largely deferred to more established veterans in the huddle a year ago, despite his prominent position and importance in leading the offense.
That approach didn't keep the offense from getting the job done, and Ohio State still has four senior offensive linemen capable of providing leadership on the field this fall. But they are no longer alone, and Miller is increasingly more willing to open his mouth and lead with his voice, instead of solely by example.
"He was quiet, other people had to tell people what to do," senior receiver Philly Brown said. "Having it come from somebody else other than the quarterback, the guys really weren't too positive about that. Now you've got the leader of the offense telling people what to do, that's better."
Miller also has started opening up more about what's on his mind publicly, which was far from a strong suit a year ago when the media attention started swelling and the Heisman Trophy campaign got rolling.
The same humility and reserved nature was in effect when the cameras and recorders were on, and that style didn't produce many soundbites and made Miller's personality a bit of a secret.
But the coaching staff used Jon Gruden's Quarterback Camp series to show the passion players such as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III have for the game on and off the field, and an Ohio State public relations director printed out transcripts of news conferences from decorated NFL veterans such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to help prepare him for the types of questions he might face as the crush of media attention continues to grow.
"Now he's got a little confidence to him," Meyer said. "That whole Gruden football camp, what a teaching tool ... seeing the way [those guys] handle everything at quarterback. I call it the most unique position in sport, and you are allowed to be a little introverted, but you have to be able to lead. He's doing that. I don't want to give him an 'A' yet, but he's doing 'A' work.
"He's really building in that respect. If he does it, that's a special player."
The Buckeyes already had that in Miller a season ago. Now they'll get to find out just what he has built himself into nine months later.