May 4, 2012

Miller, OSU offense made strides in spring

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Follow Noon | Rowland | Givler | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio - When you hire a head coach who's arguably the best dual-threat quarterbacks coach in the country, attention will quickly shift to that position.

After the initial excitement from hiring Urban Meyer subsided, that's exactly what happened at Ohio State. Braxton Miller's freshman season was like that of most freshman quarterbacks: high and lows, peaks and valleys.

For every game-winning touchdown pass to Devin Smith there was a spike on third down. But Year 2 is when starting quarterbacks flourish, and under Meyer, athletic signal-callers have set NCAA records that defy convention.

From Josh Harris at Bowling Green to Alex Smith at Utah and Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida, Meyer's quarterbacks have become part of the college football vernacular.

Meyer's decade of near excellence was ample reason for a fanbase to be enthusiastic, especially considering the prior year Buckeye Nation trudged through. But it was the new head coach that displayed a level of passion at his introductory news conference that is rarely seen. There was an instant connection between mentor and pupil.

"To tell you I'm excited to coach him," Meyer said in November, "I'm not using the correct adjectives."

Meyer's excitement gave way to frustration when spring practice commenced in March. The transition into a power-spread offense wasn't coming along as quickly as Meyer would have liked. Day after day the defense overmatched its offensive counterpart.

Said Miller, "The first spring practice is kind of tough for everybody. We're trying to learn the plays and trying to get the pace down."

The tempo wasn't what Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman desired and no one in particular was distinguishing themselves as playmakers. A hallmark of Meyer's coaching career has been identifying the players that can produce big plays and then creating mismatches for them. Without those players stepping up, Meyer had a conundrum on his hands.

By the April 21st spring game, however, the offense was finally in full bloom. Miller's adeptness was the main reason.

"Braxton Miller is a difference maker at quarterback," Meyer said. "You can build a team around him."

In many respects, that's what has been done.

Miller completed 24 of 31 passes in the spring game. Half of his completions went to true freshman Michael Thomas. The wide receiver from Los Angeles appears to have all the traits and skills to be the Buckeyes' next great receiver. Already, according to Meyer, Thomas is the hardest working receiver on the team.

As for those playmakers, they were eventually found. And some were at positions almost unfamiliar to OSU fans. Tight end Jake Stoneburner and fullback Zach Boren looked the part of All-Americans in the spring. Throwing to either position or even incorporating either into the offense under the old regime was unheard of. There were also new pass plays added - screens and crossing patterns - that had fans all atwitter.

In the backfield, Meyer and Miller have a quartet of running backs to choose from - Jordan Hall, Carlos Hyde, Bri'onte Dunn, Rod Smith. Hall has emerged as Meyer's next "Percy Harvin," with Corey Brown also showing promise catching the ball.

Armed with a new offensive philosophy and efficient run game, Ohio State's 115th-ranked passing game should be a thing of the past. Miller completed 54 percent of his passes last season for 1,159 yards and 13 touchdowns. Accuracy was a concern throughout the season, but the issue really crept up in the Michigan game and Gator Bowl. Errant throws became the norm following the Buckeyes' miracle win against Wisconsin in October. And Miller only completed more than 10 passes in one game all season - 14 in a loss to Michigan.

At the conclusion of OSU's 15 spring practices, Meyer gave Miller what sounded like his seal of approval.

"He can pass the ball," Meyer said. "Release, I give him an A. He has a very good release. Arm strength I'll probably say a B, but I'm very critical. Accuracy a C or a B. We've got to get him more accurate, but he's getting better. He had a very good spring, a very productive spring."

That message was pared with Meyer saying he still didn't know if the team could throw the ball downfield, though.

It came as no surprise that after being re-introduced, Miller took a liking to the offense. After all, he thrived in the same style during a much-acclaimed high school career at Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne.

"It's all spread with the plays coming in quick," Miller said. "No huddle and just keep it moving. It's more fun. It's just like high school back at Wayne. All signals, get the ball in and make the best plays you can."

Miller's on-field exploits will have coaches and fans clamoring. But his off-field attitude is already making waves and turning the sophomore into a team leader.

"Last year, coming in as a freshman, there was a whole bunch of leaders on the team," Miller said. "I was just trying to fit in and work my way in and do the best I could do. Coming in this year, I have a year under my belt. I'm just growing older and more mature."


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