Deflecting The Heisman Glare
August 13, 2013
Urban Meyer has been anchored as Ohio State’s football coach long enough for anyone to imagine his cold, steely stare when he’s, well, displeased.
But mention just two words – Braxton Miller – and the 49-year-old turns from hard case to fluttering, lovestruck teenager.
In fact, Meyer uses the L word a lot these days when he’s asked about his starting quarterback.
“I’ve been hurt before saying too many good things about a guy, but I love Braxton Miller,” the coach said during Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last month. “I love who he is. I love how he handles his business. I love the fact that he never walks by my office without coming in. I think he’s a man.”
Meyer could see the natural attributes Miller possesses almost as soon as he took control of the program. He knew he had a special talent capable of running his spread offense and keeping foes on their toes.
But Meyer also questioned whether Miller had the chops to be a true leader and superstar, mostly because he could hardly get more than a handful of words at a time out of the youngster’s mouth.
So last fall, with the Buckeyes staring down a postseason ban and defenses geared up to smack OSU’s shifty sophomore QB, Miller began to win over his head coach and offensive coordinator Tom Herman by racking up positive play after positive play, win after win.
When the dust settled on the 2012 regular season, the Buckeyes were a perfect 12-0 and Miller had amassed a school-record 3,310 yards of total offense – 2,039 passing and a team-high 1,271 rushing. He also accounted for 28 touchdowns.
Soon after, Miller was awarded the coveted Silver Football as the Big Ten’s most valuable player.
That alone is reason enough for Miller to be considered a Heisman Trophy candidate heading into his junior season. But there are intangibles to add to the shiny outlook.
Still quiet and humble compared to most any standout player, Miller has worked to become a more reliable practice player and leader. He also is vastly improved in terms of velocity, accuracy and aptitude when it comes to the passing game.
It would not be out of line to suggest Miller could log a season similar to the one QB Troy Smith assembled in 2006, when he became the sixth Buckeye to earn the Heisman – seven if you count Archie Griffin’s double-dip in 1974 and ’75.
Now the question is simply this: Will Miller carry himself differently at all with the Heisman hype machine whirring around him?
Those close to him are betting on the “no” option.
“What he hasn’t lost is his humble approach to everything,” Meyer said. “You’re talking about one of the finest athletes in America, a Heisman candidate, he’s the Player of the Year in the Big Ten and he’s still the same humble guy. I’m not sure I’ve ever had one like that.”
That’s an eyebrow-raising statement since Meyer while at Florida coached 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow, who often is held up as the ultimate selfless superstar of college athletics.
What’s clear, though, is Miller is not as comfortable in a room full of reporters or even a tight huddle on game day.
“I’m used to it, though. I’m getting better at it,” Miller said at OSU’s Media Day on Sunday.
When asked if dealing with all the attention is even harder than leading an offense, Miller laughed and said, “No. Quarterback, that’s a different level right there. There’s a whole lot of things going on with that.”
Plus, it’s not as if Miller is completely void of assertiveness.
“I don’t know that he’s ever going to be a Tim Tebow or a Drew Brees, just yell at you nonstop and fire up the troops, but he certainly has come out of his shell,” Herman said.
“I think the biggest reason why we didn’t see it last year was I think the kid is so self-conscious that he said, ‘How can I expect to impose my leadership on my teammates when my own house isn’t in order?’ ”
Keeping It Real
All signs point to a monstrous season for Miller, a product of Huber Heights Wayne High School just outside of Dayton, which means the Heisman spotlight is about to find him.
“My best advice to him is don’t worry about that,” Meyer said on the subject during a recent ESPN interview. “We don’t need any campaign with me speaking about it or you speaking about it. The Heisman goes to the best football player in America. It’s not to the guy with the loudest mouth and the guy who points to himself a lot. It’s the guy who plays the best football.
“The great thing is he’s one of the most humble great athletes I’ve ever been around so it’s been zero issue. I don’t feel the need to surround him and isolate him because he kind of likes to isolate himself. He’s focused on becoming a great player.”
While Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has relished his celebrity after winning the Heisman last year, he also is under NCAA investigation for his alleged role in autograph-for-profit scandal. Miller, who signed scads of memorabilia at a Big Ten luncheon in Chicago, was not linked to any such wrongdoing.
Still, the Manziel development and Tebow-mania have made him even more conscious of the pitfalls that exist for high-profile athletes.
“I get approached by all types of fans to take pictures,” he said at Media Day. “I’m not going to turn any of them to take a picture. And if a little kid comes up and says, ‘Hey, can you sign this?’ I’m going to sign it. That’s the type of person I am. But if it comes (up) on the Internet …”
As for his tendency to lie low, he said, “It’s not to put down the team or anything like that, or to seek out myself. I’m not a self-centered person like that. It’s just for the fans.”
Meyer just hopes Miller can continue to play good football and keep the glare from blinding the junior. And he admitted that he’s changed his approach to Heisman talk after his experience with Tebow.
“I remember I wanted to avoid it in 2007,” Meyer said. “I kept getting asked about it and I’m always worried about a distraction, so I was like, ‘I’m not talking about it, he’s not ready, it’s not time.’ And then I also realized I recruited the guy, I know the guy and I have an obligation to one of the greatest awards in sports. So in 2007 I came around and said I believe Tim Tebow is a Heisman candidate. I didn’t want to do that but I felt an obligation to my player.”
Last season, though, Meyer declared Miller wasn’t ready for such a candidacy.
“If I had to do it again, I would have probably kind of stayed away from that answer,” the coach said. “So if it’s time this year I will say Braxton Miller is a Heisman candidate. But at this time I can’t say that.”
To Eddie George, who won the award as an Ohio State senior in 1995, all the preseason discussion on the subject is bluster anyway.
“There’s no need to have that conversation,” George told SportsRappUp.com. “Last year was last year, and what he needs to do is go out there and take care of business. The things he can control are his attitude and his effort, and that’s what is going to win you’re the Heisman – not a campaign, not how you tweet, not how you deal with the pressure.
“The pressure is all between the temples. It’s about handling your business week in and week out, and raising not only your level of play but also demanding out of your team. That’s what’s going to win him the Heisman, the week in and week out.
“If you have a routine and you use that routine, what’s there to change? I think guys that feel like they’ve got to sit down and talk about it lose sight of what it’s all about. It’s really not about you, it’s about the team’s success.”
George put together a record-setting year with 1,927 rushing yards and scored 24 touchdowns, but what salted away the Heisman were standout, winning performances in big games.
“I’d be lying if I said winning the Heisman was not a goal of mine, but it was never the ultimate goal,” he said. “My priorities, number one, were to be a great teammate, to be a captain of the team and be a leader, and so forth. I let everything fall into place after that. I didn’t seek out any advice on ‘How do I handle this?’ or anything like that. Archie never came to me and said ‘The Heisman is likely for you so this is what you need to do.’ Just be yourself and things will go well.
“I think oftentimes guys try to manufacture the image and think that’s how you win the award, and it doesn’t happen that way. It just organically happens if you’re honest with who you are, what you bring to the table, and if you continue to be a selfless player.”
What’s In Store
Everyone around Miller, of course, would love to see him holding Johnny Heisman, but first he needs to believe he is that level and player and that he can truly flourish in Ohio State’s offensive system.
When asked if Miller is better equipped to handle that type of development, Meyer said, “We all are. He trusts us. If you were to say last year, ‘Do you touch our coaching staff? ….’ He didn’t know us very well. He would’ve probably said yes but in his soul, no.”
Miller won’t get to beginning displaying what his coaches and teammates are already seeing until the Aug. 31 opener with Buffalo at Ohio Stadium. But it’s safe to say the early returns in practice are highly encouraging.
Longtime Mount Union coach Larry Kehres – one of the nation’s most successful mentors and a friend of Meyer – observed a recent practice and raved about the improvement Miller showed in the pocket and on mechanics.
It only confirmed Meyer’s feelings.
“I love Braxton Miller,” he said at Media Day. “He and Tom Herman have got something going very special right now. You can see it on the field.”
Herman said he and Miller have grown closer and developed a rapport, but there is more to do.
“He was and still is and will continue to be a tough nut to crack,” Herman said of his QB. “He’s very guarded, as is well-documented. He’s a very introverted person – and that’s not bad. But it lends itself to a much tougher job for a guy like me to say, ‘Hey, since high school I’m your fourth offensive coordinator in four years or third in three years or whatever it might be and, oh, by the way, you’ve got to trust me 100 percent.’
“It takes time and trust is earned. It’s not just given. I’d like to think that myself and my family have started to bridge that gap of him trusting me and me trusting him more, too. There’s part of that in the process, too. So we’ve had a very productive offseason when it comes to mine and his relationship – getting to know each other better and bridging that trust gap.
“It’s a work in progress. We’re continuing it every day.”
Soon Miller will have to put all of that trust, knowledge and belief in himself to practical use. Step one, he admits, may be to not take on as many defenders as he did last year and to trust the routes of his receivers.
“Guys get open quick, so I want to get that ball out quick,” he said with a laugh.
“He’s got to be effective in the pocket,” George said. “He’s got to be accurate down the field making throws and better decisions – finding the blitzes, taking mastery of the offense to a new level, and becoming the leader of his team.
“If he’s committed to his team and committed to being the best he can be, if he’s there after practice and in the facility setting the example, being competitive and being a coach on the field. That’s what you want to see in the position.”
Like Smith, Miller will be surrounded by a plethora of weapons – H-back Jordan Hall, a deep stable of tailbacks, tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett, and talented receivers such as Philly Brown and Devin Smith.
Miller always has played with confidence in himself and those around him, but plans to be even better when it comes to leading and making the proper decisions.
“He’s real calm,” Hall said. “He started showing emotion toward the end of the season during the games and he showed a lot of emotion during the offseason this year, but he’s going to be able to handle that pressure. He had a lot of pressure playing as a freshman and he did pretty good, and he’s getting better every year.
“This is going to be his best year. I saw him put in all the work in the offseason and I saw the improvements in his arm this past week of camp. He’s playing.”