Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
CINCINNATI – The new-and-improved version of Braxton Miller has been on display inside the concrete walls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for roughly the past month and a half.
With a recently dyed, bleach blond hairdo, the junior quarterback has impressed his coaches, his teammates, media members and others with his progression this March and April at the Buckeyes’ training facility. Miller’s passing has been more precise, footwork more efficient and decision-making more to coach Urban Meyer’s liking during Ohio State’s 15 spring practices.
On a bigger stage Saturday, Miller showcased his enhanced array of talents to a few thousand more people, leading his Scarlet squad to a 31-14 win against the Gray team in the Spring Game at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati in front of a crowd of 37,643.
The Huber Heights, Ohio, native finished the 2013 edition of the annual intra-squad scrimmage, moved from the homely confines of Ohio Stadium due to construction, with 217 yards passing on 16-of-25 attempts and two touchdowns.
Miller’s stat line isn’t overly impressive. It pales in comparison to the numbers the then-sophomore put up in 2012, when the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder electrified OSU crowds on his way to breaking the Buckeyes’ record for total yards in a season.
Wearing a black, no-contact jersey, Miller’s normally thrilling style of play highlighted by long scrambles that routinely ended past the goal line was hindered Saturday.
So Miller had to rely on what he’s been working on all offseason: his fundamentals.
Nearly all of the dual-threat quarterback’s throws came inside the pocket on a three- or five-step drop, as Miller is trying to better both his throwing technique and his footwork.
“(It was) pretty good. I still have some things to work on and I made some mistakes,” Miller said.
The 20-year-old is still far from a finished product, and he’ll be the first to downplay any recognition or praise given to him.
There are chinks in the Heisman candidate’s armor, and Miller’s faults – while minor – were evident at times Saturday. Most of the ill tendencies in Miller’s game showed up outside of the pocket. He continues to drop his shoulder a little too much when making a throw on the run and will sporadically force passes in to heavy coverage.
“If you see, fundamentally, he’s pretty good,” Meyer said. “But when it breaks down, that’s when it starts to go. And I thought today that was pretty good. He had a couple situations where it didn’t look very good, he went back to the old days and started running instead of keeping your eyes downfield. But he’s much improved.”
The raw talent, and more importantly, the work Miller did over the winter and in to the spring to improve his game, overshadowed any mistakes the junior quarterback made.
On the first play of the contest, Miller hit junior wide receiver Evan Spencer, in stride, for a 49-yard completion. He found junior wide out Devin Smith on a back-shoulder throw to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown a few plays later. Miller’s second touchdown pass of the day was a 3-yard slant to his favorite target from last season, senior wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown.
“It was a pass-heavy game, an area that we weren’t very good at last year, an area that have we to get better in. I thought at times that Braxton Miller and a couple of the wide outs, Philly Brown in particular, did very well,” Meyer said.
Being a more accurate thrower is the biggest stride Miller has admittedly made from the end of last season to now.
“Placing the ball where it needed to be placed, especially hitting receivers in stride and back-shoulder throws,” Miller said, noting where he has made improvements.
The athleticism showed up in spurts, too, as Miller ran five yards for a score in the third quarter and even caught a five-yard pass off a trick play late in the second half.
“It’s always good to see him (being) very mobile. When he comes out of the pocket, he keeps drives alive and that’s what’s so good about Braxton,” said redshirt senior wide receiver Chris Fields.
Miller’s evolving fundamentals, and his growing knowledge of OSU’s playbook, are what captivated his teammates and coaches most.
Once the 2012 season ended, Meyer challenged Miller to become the most fundamentally-sound quarterback in the country. Miller obliged as best he could, traveling to California to work with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. in December and over spring break, and watching film as much as possible.
In terms of fulfilling his coach’s wishes, Miller might not be all the way there yet, but it’s clear that the junior is a smarter, more well-rounded football player than he was a season ago.
“He’s working on his technique on throwing, being more accurate. I see the accuracy, it’s paying off from the offseason,” Fields said.
Of all the players on OSU’s 2013 roster, possibly none spent more time in the film room and studying the playbook than Miller.
“I know the plays better, how they’ll develop and where the guys are going to be. It allows me to move around the pocket more confidently,” Miller said.
Miller’s increased knowledge is something that has his wide receivers excited for the fall.
“All the athletic ability, that’s always going to be there, but him knowing the game way more than any other year and him studying way more than I’ve ever seen him, it’s showing up on the field,” Brown said.
Miller’s teammates and coaches hope the steady development of their quarterback continues to show up on the field, especially come fall, when OSU will look to improve on its 12-0 record from a year prior.
As for the golden locks, Miller said his blond hair is starting to grow out and will soon be completely gone. Miller, admittedly, has enough flashiness in his game, which will come back to life in August after being harnessed this spring.
Meyer said he’s satisfied with where his quarterback, and his team, is right now.
“I think we’re on track,” he said.
OSU opens up its 2013 campaign Aug. 31 against Buffalo in Columbus.