By Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
COLUMBUS: He set a school record for most yards in a season, led Ohio State to a perfect record and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year, yet Braxton Miller shakes his head with disappointment when he reviews parts of his sophomore season.
His mechanics were a mess, in part because his footwork was terrible. His default was to pull the ball down and run at the first sign of trouble, and his intermediate throws lacked the touch of a polished quarterback. He graded his own fundamentals as a D-plus, but that was before he put in a winter’s worth of work.
“The whole offseason I worked on my fundamentals,” Miller said Sunday during Ohio State’s media day. “It’s unbelievable how far I came from last year.”
Miller enters this season as an early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, in part because of the staggering numbers he amassed last season despite fairly raw quarterback skills. Now he seems much more comfortable as both a leader and a quarterback.
Larry Kehres, the legendary former coach at Mount Union and a longtime friend of OSU coach Urban Meyer, watched Ohio State’s scrimmage on Saturday and told Meyer how comfortable Miller looked in the pocket and how polished his mechanics appear.
The coaching staff showed Miller the series of Gruden Camp videos that ESPN analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden made with former college stars Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. The point of the exercise was to get the mild-mannered Miller more vocal on the field and seeing more plays develop in front of him.
“I call it the most unique position in sports,” Meyer said. “You can be a little introverted, but you have to be able to lead. I don’t want to give him an ‘A’ yet, but he’s pushing ‘A’ work.”
The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring last year despite missing a large part of their playbook. Jordan Hall battled injuries and a suspension that essentially rendered him irrelevant last year, forcing Meyer to toss out an entire section of his playbook built around the H back.
With Hall eager and motivated to put last season’s misery behind him, Meyer is counting on a much more expansive, explosive offense for Miller to direct.
“He and [offensive coordinator] Tom Herman have something really special going on now,” Meyer said. “You can see it on the field. He’s just a different guy. He’s never been a bad guy, always been a great guy. But he has a confidence to him.”
When he first arrived on campus, Miller appeared nervous in front of the media. He was quiet, fidgety and rarely smiled. As nearly 100 people swarmed him with cameras and microphones on Sunday, Miller was relaxed and confident.
“Y’all are my friends,” he laughed.
He is easily the biggest celebrity on a football-crazed campus, but has done well to avoid the off-field snares that have tripped reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Miller’s name rarely surfaces in off-field headlines, although it did last week when items he autographed at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon last month were sold online.
Given the autograph scandal encompassing Manziel now, coupled with Ohio State’s ongoing probation from its own memorabilia scandal a couple of years ago, OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith was forced to investigate the online autographs. Smith told the Associated Press last week Miller did not profit from the autographs sold online, and, therefore, there was no issue.
“I get approached by all types of fans. I’m not going to turn down a fan or nothing like that,” Miller said. “If a little kid comes up to me and asks me to sign something, I’m going to sign it.”
He concedes the Heisman talk is always in the back of his mind. He hasn’t reached out yet to former Heisman winner Troy Smith, but didn’t completely dismiss the idea as the expectations and frenzy surrounding him continue to swell.
Miller has grown up quite a bit in two years. He was injected into a difficult situation as a freshman, progressed as a quarterback last season and now seems poised to explode.
“Now he’s taking on the leadership role,” said running backs coach Stan Drayton, the only remaining offensive coach from Miller’s freshman year. “He’s grabbing guys by the hand and taking them along. That’s what I’ve noticed the most, the maturity and leadership. And fundamentally, his play alone, it’s obvious he has matured. He’s more vocal, more excited and more knowledgeable of the system. He’s just a different quarterback right now.”