Numerous seasons have opened with the Buckeyes coaches and quarterbacks maintaining that this would be the year Troy Smith, Terrelle Pryor and even Braxton Miller would do more passing and less running.
It worked for Smith – he went from 136 rushes and 11 running TDs as a junior in 2005 to just 72 runs and one score whilst winning the Heisman Trophy in ’06. It was starting to come together for Pryor, who went from 162 rushes as a sophomore to 135 as a junior.
As for Miller, he ran 227 times while serving as the only real dependable part of the offense on the 12-0 team in 2012, but that rushing total dropped to 171 rushes a season ago. Throughout the preseason, there was plenty of talk that Miller was going to be a passer, not a runner, in 2014.
“You’re right, I’m not,” he said Aug. 10. “I’ll get a chance to throw it around to a lot of different guys this year.”
So that was the plan – Miller would be more of a distributor as a senior, someone who could showcase what the Buckeyes were hoping would be NFL-caliber passing skill while moving the ball around to his top targets.
Of course, that led to a writer suggesting to Miller that the Buckeye coaching staff could still have a tendency to fall back on “rock” – you know, nothing beats rock – when the going gets tough.
After all, Meyer has admitted to learning on his young signal caller in the past, with no more prevalent example being last year’s Big Ten Championship Game when he chose to have Miller run the ball on a fateful fourth-and-2, with Meyer simply saying afterward he wanted to put the ball in the hands of the team’s best player.
But even that, Miller said, wouldn’t happen.
“They won’t (do that),” Miller said. “It’s a different year, a different mentality, different guys around me. That’s not what we’re going for this year.”
But was the coaching staff going to be able to help itself when it needed Miller’s legs the most? Last year, he had the most carries – 22 in a tight win vs. Wisconsin, 21 in the MSU game, 18 in close games vs. Iowa and Clemson in the Orange Bowl, 17 more in the comeback win vs. Northwestern – when the games were on the line.
And it was a nice trump card to have – sure, you can get away with having Braxton finish with just one rush in a blowout of Purdue, but it would be folly not to use all the tools at your disposal in the biggest games. It was the same way with Pryor, who had seven games of single-digit rushes as a junior in 2010 but ran 20 times vs. Miami, 18 in the loss at Wisconsin and 15 in close late-season wins vs. Iowa and Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
So that was the backdrop of the campaign before Miller’s injury, and now all the talk is just that – talk.
In fact, I’d argue now that after weeks of talking up their weapons, the Buckeyes now have no choice but to use them.
That’s not a knock on the athleticism of J.T. Barrett, who had more than 2,000 rushing yards in his final two years of high school ball. But very few people are Braxton Miller, who Jeff Heuerman called “one of the most explosive players to ever play this game at Ohio State.” Miller could turn nothing into something or use a single stutter step to unlock a touchdown – skills that very few people in the nation have.
But now that ability is gone, and the Buckeyes have turned to a young quarterback the program calls “The Distributor” to take over. And the key to distributing is to have people to distribute to, and the Buckeyes say that is the case.
“I think we’ve finally got some quality depth (at the skill positions) that has created competition, and we talk about it all the time,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “Now there’s a legitimate fight for the football. You want to get on the field and touch the football, you’re going to have to prove every day in practice that you deserve it and that you deserve it more than these 10 guys, where maybe last year it has been one or two guys that maybe deserve it.”
Added Heuerman, “I know one thing – we have a lot more playmakers this year that can make plays with the ball than we have in years past. We probably have three, four, five more playmakers than we have in years past coming into the season. We’re going to rely on some of them to make a lot of plays. We’re going to have to account for some of the things that we’re not going to have with Braxton out there.”
So this is the time to rely on the Dontre Wilsons and Jalin Marshalls, the Ezekiel Elliotts and Curtis Samuels of the world. This is the time for the Devin Smiths and Corey Smiths to make their case. Their team, their coaches and their freshman quarterback need them.
There is no security blanket anymore. For this to be a successful season, it is now assured it will be more about the people catching the ball than the ones catching the snap.