Putting two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller in a black “hands off” practice jersey is like wrapping a waist-slimming belt around Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott’s six-pack abs.
That’s the image OSU defensive tackle Adolphus Washington had of Miller when asked about the Buckeyes’ former quarterback making the transition to receiver this season.
“When he was playing quarterback, even though you can’t hit the quarterback (in practice) it was impossible to even try to hit him,” Washington said. “He’s just got a sense when you’re coming and where you’re coming from.
“I don’t think he even thinks about what he does. It just naturally happens. That’s how it looks. He didn’t really need to wear a black jersey (in practice). Ain’t nobody hitting him anyway.”
Possibly the most dynamic talent to ever wear an Ohio State uniform, Miller saw that his twice surgically-repaired throwing shoulder wasn’t going to be 100 percent in time for the start of this season. So the fifth-year senior went to coach Urban Meyer in June with Plan B.
“He’s the one; he pushed it,” said Meyer about the move to receiver. “We wanted to make sure when he said let’s do it, he was prepared to go do it.”
Miller’s move is being seen as a selfless act, but it’s a move he should have selfishly made even earlier after it became apparent that the offense was in good hands with quarterback with J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones.
Even before the shoulder surgeries, Miller wasn’t much of an NFL prospect as a quarterback. But there’s almost always going to be a place in the pros for an athlete who can do damage out in space. That should be the case for Miller if he can adapt to a new position.
That’s where the Buckeyes are now with Miller. Can he cut it as a receiver or — in the nomenclature of Meyer’s offensive system — at H-back, as a hybrid running back/receiver?
Although skill players are arriving at OSU in waves thanks to Meyer’s recruiting prowess, the Buckeyes need that answer to be a resounding yes since three players they are counting on out wide and in the slot — Corey Smith, Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson — are suspended for the opener at Virginia Tech. They’ve also lost Noah Brown to a season-ending broken leg.
“Guys who go play receiver that haven’t, it’s like a safety going to play corner,” Meyer said. “It doesn’t happen very often. Basically, what our corner does in our defense, you line up, you tape your ankles, and you run for two hours of practice and play bump-and-run man coverage. As a receiver you line up and run two hours. As a quarterback you don’t run. You run for maybe four or five minutes at practice, and you’re doing other things.”
Miller, who also changed jersey numbers from 5 to 1, discovered early in camp that quarterback legs aren’t the same as receiver legs.
“After the second day, I was like, ‘I don’t know how y’all do it,’” he said. “I ran four miles a day, and I barely ran a mile at quarterback. It’s going good, other than my legs being sore. I just want to be the best at what I do. Whatever I do on the field, I just want to be the best at it.”
Before sitting out all of last season, Miller quarterbacked the Buckeyes to 24 straight regular season wins in Meyer’s first two years as head coach. In 2012, they were ineligible to compete for the Big Ten Championship because of NCAA sanctions tied to the tattoo scandal and coverup, and in 2013 their bid to play for a national championship was spoiled by Michigan State in the B1G title game.
Ohio State’s consolation prize that season was the Orange Bowl, where Miller injured his shoulder. He played through the pain in a loss to Clemson and reinjured the shoulder, post-surgery, during training camp last fall, requiring more surgery for a torn labrum.
Now the reinvented Miller figures that since he’ll often be into the second or third level of the defense when he gets the ball — instead of scrambling behind the line of scrimmage — he should be able to wreak more havoc.
“All you have to do is make one person miss, and it’s off to the races,” he said, excited about the endless possibilities on an OSU offense stacked with playmakers. “I’ve always had confidence in myself. I’m fortunate that God blessed me that I can play any position on the field. I just pray every night I have a healthy season.”
Offensive tackle Taylor Decker admitted it’s sort of weird to see Miller in the huddle and not commanding it.
“Even before I got here, I knew him as a quarterback,” Decker said. “He played high school football five minutes from my house (in Vandalia). I have a ton of respect for him being able to humble himself to make a position change for the betterment of the team.
“Obviously, I expect him to translate to that position real well. He can accelerate, he has top-end speed, he can cut on a dime. He’s just a natural athlete. Everybody’s seen him play. He can ‘wow’ people.”
Here’s what may not translate: An injury-prone player, whose troubles staying healthy date back to high school, running over the middle to make catches. Plenty of Ohio State fans will be holding their breath. And there will be some anxious moments for the head coach, too.
“Is a guy in his face?” Meyer said. “I’ve seen him run routes … it’s a ‘wow.’ How does he do with a very good player on top of him?”
Only time will tell, but Miller’s background means he didn’t undertake this challenge blindly.
“Playing quarterback, you have to have the broad concept in mind,” Decker said. “You have to know what everybody’s doing and understand coverages. So I think it will give him a leg up because he’s got a deeper understanding of the whole defense.”
Jones tweaked Miller a little bit on the first day of camp by saying he looked like a first-time receiver.
“First time? Yeah, right,” Miller said. “Ask him again. Ask (safety) Vonn Bell.”
Jones might have been playfully picking a fight. Or maybe he was being blunt, a side often seen from Meyer.
“Of course, he has speed, of course has can catch the ball, but there’s more to it than that,” Jones said. “It’s understanding the depth of routes and getting in and out of breaks and things like that.”
Whatever happens, Miller has Jones’ undying respect.
“The things he’s done to overcome what he has in the off-season, I’ve never seen anyone work that hard to get back,” Jones said. “There’s times he would call the managers at home to turn on the lights on the indoor field.
“So, of course, he has a right to be excited.”
Washington called Miller a “joystick.”
“What you saw at quarterback, that’s exactly what you’ll get at receiver,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping. If he can do that at quarterback, imagine what he’ll do in open space.
“He’s constantly working, even when no one else is around. He’s the guy who stays late nights watching film and working out. I definitely think he’ll be ready.”
Maybe most remarkable about Miller’s comeback attempt is that weeks of him catching balls at the practice facility were kept a secret. It must have killed a Twitter lover like Jones not to tweet about it.
“When we talk about the culture of this team, it’s not just something we say. It’s legit. It’s real,” linebacker Josh Perry said. “We were trusted not to tell anybody about that. Guys did a pretty fantastic job of it. I think that speaks a lot to what coach has built with us.”
As for what he expects from Miller at his new position, Perry answered with two words.