|Quarterback Braxton Miller :: Getty Images|
In the long run, it already looks as if the Buckeyes will land on their feet in the wake of the improper-benefits scandal that ended Jim Tressel's tenure in 2011. But 2012 is shaping up to be a transitional year. Urban Meyer returns to Columbus (where he was a graduate assistant) with plenty of talent to work with -- on defense, anyway. The Buckeyes arguably have the best line in the nation. Defensive end John Simon, a third-team All-America last year, earned Meyer's highest praise when the coach (invoking his Florida tenure) referred to his defensive leader as "Tebowish." He is joined by junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, an absurdly athletic 317-pounder. The secondary, headed by junior safety C.J. Barnett, is deep and experienced, and the linebacking corps, while green, is talented.
On offense, however, Meyer has issues. Ohio State averaged just 24.5 points a year ago, its lowest output since 2004, and 318.2 yards of offense, its worst output since the Woody Hayes era (1976, to be exact). "There's a lot of reasons why," Meyer said. "But obviously, [they] played a true-freshman quarterback and had relatively inexperienced guys at the skill positions. It showed statistically, and it showed on videotape."
The true freshman to whom Meyer refers is Braxton Miller. Now a sophomore, he's a star in the making and is potentially a superb fit for Meyer's spread offense. But last season he was raw as a passer, and given Ohio State's dearth of quality receivers, he may not have the supporting cast he needs to progress. (The go-to guy may turn out to be massive tight end Jake Stoneburner.) Still, Meyer is upbeat. "I think we're probably a little bit ahead of where I thought we would be," he said.
As part of the Buckeyes' punishment for the violations committed under Tressel's watch, they're not eligible for a bowl or for the Big Ten title game. But Meyer hasn't missed a beat in recruiting. Despite a scholarship reduction, his 2013 class is shaping up as one of the nation's 10 best. Nor has it taken him long to get under the skin of opposing Big Ten coaches. (Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Wisconsin's Bret Bielema were both unhappy with Meyer for poaching recruits.) These are both good signs that -- after a tumultuous 18 months -- the Buckeyes are getting back to business as usual.
Can the Buckeyes surround quarterback Braxton Miller with enough playmakers to pose a threat in Meyer's spread offense?
46 -- Sacks of Ohio State in 2011, third-most in the nation and the most a Big Ten team had allowed in four seasons.
C.J. Barnett, SS, Jr. -- Barnett is the top returnee in a secondary that brings back all four starters. A physical run defender who more than holds his own in coverage, Barnett led the Buckeyes with 75 tackles last season.
Johnathan Hankins, DT, Jr. -- The 317-pound Hankins has the talent to be the most disruptive interior force in the nation, having racked up 67 tackles in his first season as a starter. He's projected as a first-round pick should he choose to enter the NFL draft after this season.
John Simon, DE, Sr. -- A powerful and relentless pass rusher who has played tackle and end in Luke Fickell's defense, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Simon was a third-team All-America last year when he finished fifth in the conference in sacks (7.0) and tied for seventh in tackles for loss (16.0).
Zach Boren, FB, Sr. -- Urban Meyer hasn't had much use for fullbacks in the past, but he's identified Boren as one of his best players and will use him as a blocker and a pass catcher. In three seasons -- two as a starter -- Boren has 20 receptions.
Curtis Grant, LB, So. -- After being brought along slowly, playing primarily on special teams as a freshman, the nation's top linebacker recruit in the class of 2011 could emerge as one of the Big Ten's premier defenders. A ferocious hitter with outstanding range, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder impressed mightily during spring drills and earned the starting job at middle linebacker.
Michael Thomas, WR, Fr. -- The polished, explosive L.A. product who prepped at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy met Braxton Miller at the 2011 Under Armour All-America game. He really clicks with the sophomore quarterback (12 catches, 131 yards in the spring game).
When new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer watches Braxton Miller, his 6-foot-2, 210 pound sophomore quarterback, he sees something he has never seen before. "He's fast," Meyer said. "Like ... legitimate fast. I've never had a guy this fast. Josh Harris was a very good athlete, Alex Smith was a good athlete, Tim Tebow was a very good athlete, so I've had athletic quarterbacks. But he has a skill set that I've really not had before."
In one of those ironies of football, that speed is what's slowing down Miller's development. To truly master the spread offense that Meyer used to turn Bowling Green (with Harris) into a mid-major power, bring Utah (with Smith) into the BCS conversation and win two national titles at Florida (with Chris Leak and Tebow), Miller must become a serviceable passer. As a true freshman he had more rushing attempts (159) than passes thrown (157). Every once in a while this season Miller will have to relax, make a read, plant his feet and throw. Right now his legs aren't having it.
"It's really hard with athletic guys because they want their feet moving all the time," said Tom Herman, the Buckeyes' first-year offensive coordinator. "He has to calm down and understand there's a certain footwork to every route that we throw, a specific timing that needs to be adhered to. But there's just too much bouncing and hopping in his drops." Still, Herman has been dazzled. "On a daily basis [during the spring] there were probably one or two plays where I'd say, 'Wow, look at that throw,' " he said. "The smoothness of his delivery and the strength of his arm are both very, very impressive. But [the footwork] has to become muscle memory."
It's not an uncorrectable problem, especially given Miller's pedigree. He arrived in Columbus from Huber Heights, Ohio, after a senior season in which he led Wayne High to the state's Division I title game by running for 658 yards and 17 touchdowns -- and passing for 2,167 yards and another 17 scores. At Ohio State, after splitting time with Joe Bauserman for the first three games of 2011, Miller stepped in as the starter and never relinquished the spot. He rushed for 715 yards, fourth among Big Ten quarterbacks, and seven touchdowns, including three 100-yard rushing games among the last five. But he threw for only 1,159 yards as the Buckeyes stumbled to a 6-7 record.
"I was just average," admitted Miller, a communications major. "But playing with a whole bunch of seniors last year, I feel like I grew up fast."
That maturity started to shine through last November, when Miller became the first true freshman quarterback to start for an Ohio State team at Michigan. He delivered his best all-around game of the year: 14 for 25 for 235 yards on a variety of throws, two touchdowns and an interception to go along with 100 rushing yards in a shootout 40-34 loss to the rival Wolverines. It was the first time he completed more than eight passes in a game, and it's a major reason for optimism heading into his sophomore year. So, too, is Miller's demeanor.
"I love him," said Meyer. "I love him as a person. He's a very humble guy, he always wants to talk football, and he's very serious about his work."
For Miller, the warm, fuzzy feeling is mutual when it comes to Meyer's spread offense. "Oh, it's lovely," he said. "I just need to get the ball out of my hand fast and get it to the playmakers." If he learns to use his arm for more than just tucking the ball away, Miller could become another all-Meyer quarterback.
SI: So what's it like trying to run a football program at a basketball school?
UM: I had that problem at Florida, too. [Laughs.] I'm all in with Thad Matta, man. Ohio State is a basketball school, but we play a little football here too.
SI: Speaking of other sports, you played a couple years of minor league baseball with some Atlanta Braves heroes of the 1990s, like Ron Gant and Mark Lemke. What was the scouting report on "Urban Meyer, shortstop"?
UM: He had trouble fielding. He couldn't hit the ball and he wasn't very fast, so that's why he's coaching college football. He tried real hard, though. Fred McGriff and I were in the minor leagues together, too. We're still good friends.
SI: Have a favorite Michigan joke?
UM: I know a couple, but ... I'm gonna pass on that one. I don't need any more headlines.
SI: You're now entrusted with one of college football's best traditions: the Buckeye helmet stickers. What will your system be for passing those out?
UM: I'll have the final say. I'm going to have a leadership committee, a group I'll have a conversation with because I want to have the players' point of view as well.
SI: A lot of fans used to get on Jim Tressel for running a conservative offense. Are you going to open things up a little?
UM: I'd love to open it up a lot, but if our best players are all fullbacks and tight ends, it might not be as open as it was in Florida. The last six or seven receivers I had at Florida are all starting in the NFL.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.