Buckeyes' Miller at his best in the spotlight

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer raves about Braxton Miller's competitive spirit these days, but not long ago the Ohio State coach felt differently about his quarterback.

"It was very alarming in the [winter]," Meyer told ESPN.com.

New coaches must wait until the spring to work with players on the practice field, but they keep close tabs during winter conditioning. It's no coincidence the coaches' offices at programs like Nebraska overlook the team's weight room.

When Meyer observed Miller this winter, he became concerned. It wasn't as if Miller slacked off or didn't get his work in with the strength coaches. But he didn't measure up to the starting quarterbacks Meyer had in the past.

"Chris Leak doesn't get enough credit at Florida," Meyer said, referring to the quarterback who helped him win his first national title, against Ohio State. "He was a very hard worker in the weight room, a very competitive guy in the weight room. [Tim] Tebow was off the charts. Alex Smith was extremely competitive in the offseason program. I didn't see that from Braxton."

"He worked hard," Meyer continued. "He was fine. I didn't see him compete at the level he's competing at right now. The lights come on, you get the ball in his hands and he becomes an excellent competitor."

The lights of spring practice are only so bright, even here at Ohio State, but Miller's work on the field has put Meyer's concerns to rest. The sophomore still has a long way to go in absorbing a new offense and improving the technical aspects of his game, but his drive to win isn't in doubt for a coach who knows what he wants in a starting quarterback.

"In the winter, it's just all working out, a little bit of competitive drills going on," Miller told ESPN.com. "But when the pads come on, the lights come on, it's just more natural for me to have fun and compete."

He showed glimpses of it as a freshman last fall, never more so than in the closing moments of Ohio State's 33-29 win against then-No. 15 Wisconsin. The Buckeyes had squandered a 12-point lead with 4:39 to play and trailed 29-26 when Miller rallied the team in the closing seconds. On first down from Wisconsin's 40-yard line, Miller rolled out, spotted teammate Devin Smith slipping behind Wisconsin's secondary, and fired the game-winning touchdown pass with 20 ticks left.

Miller also led a late scoring drive in regulation at Purdue, and didn't seem fazed by his first trip to Ann Arbor, passing for 235 yards and two touchdowns with an interception against a top-20 Michigan defense.

Although he had limited production in a limited role in a limited offense last season, Miller didn't shy away from big moments.

"All my life, when I get the chance to get the ball in my hands, it's exciting," he said.

When spring ball began, Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman had different concerns than Meyer about Miller. Herman knew he had inherited an athlete -- Miller rushed for 715 yards and seven touchdowns last season -- but he had never seen Miller pass the ball live.

Despite starting 10 games in 2011, Miller only attempted 157 passes, including a laughable four in a win at Illinois.

"I crossed my fingers and held my breath and went out there for the first practice," Herman said. "It was a big sigh of relief, seeing him throw the football. How he throws the football from the shoulders up is actually very mechanically sound. His footwork is probably the biggest thing we're continuing to work on.

"They're not easy fixes, but they're a lot less complex than trying to break a kid's arm mechanics down and build him back up."

Meyer likens Miller to Josh Harris, who played quarterback for Meyer at Bowling Green in 2001-02. But Miller has his "own little niche," Meyer said.

Like Meyer, Herman has seen Miller compete hard in practices, particularly during winner/loser days.

"He wants it to be perfect every time, and especially when he's the one contributing to those mistakes, then it really frustrates him," Herman said. "That's a good thing. If he wasn't frustrated, we'd have problems."

For the most part, Miller remains even-keeled. Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort doesn't expect Miller to become "more rah-rah" in the weight room. Mewhort also doesn't expect Miller to be rattled in big moments.

"He wants the ball in his hands because he knows he can do great things with it," tight end Jake Stoneburner said. "You weren't really able to see that in the winter, because it's all lifting and running, but once you get on the field, some guys change, and he's one of those guys."

Stoneburner has seen significant changes in Miller this spring, acknowledging that a quarterback who was "a little bit intimidated" last season is taking charge more in the huddle. The soft-spoken Miller is trying to be more vocal, whether it's flipping protections with his linemen, or changing the routes for his pass-catchers.

"I grew up a lot," he said.

But he's not where he needs to be.

"He's an average leader right now," Meyer said. "We need to make him a great leader. You have to raise the level of play of those around you. This summer, he has to do it. He hasn't done it to this point. He's been at Ohio State for a little over a year, and his leadership qualities are not where they need to be.

"I think he will get there, because he's sharp, he's smart and he's a competitor."

Especially when the lights come on.