OHIO STATE'S IDENTITY crisis descends the locker room tunnel at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey. Dressed in OSU sweats, Braxton Miller steps into the crisp late-October evening. The Buckeyes have just taken down Big Ten bottom-feeder Rutgers 49-7. Miller carries a duffel bag over his twice-injured right shoulder, the one that used to carry the weight of expectations in Columbus. Now it can support hardly more than a change of clothes. He stands in the postgame quiet, doing what any NFL hopeful would do. He's analyzing his numbers.
Miller had only three opportunities, two catches for 55 yards and one rush for 16. Yet he makes sure to remain upbeat. "I love it," he says. "Coach Meyer knows I love it too."
No, Miller doesn't love that he has been repositioned from quarterback to wide receiver, reduced from BMOC to bit player. But after missing all of Ohio State's 2014 national championship season, being back on the field is reward enough. It was Miller, a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year under center, who set this bizarre Ohio State story in motion. His shoulder injury in August 2014 allowed two backups -- first J.T. Barrett, then Cardale Jones -- to lead OSU to that startling title. And it is Miller whose on-the-job transition this fall has provided a tidy metaphor for the team's efforts to find itself all over again.
Ohio State averaged 44.8 points per game last season, tops in the Big Ten and No. 5 in the country. The Buckeyes appeared to have little room for Miller; more to the point, they looked as if they didn't need him. Then the offseason arrived, and with it the sort of juicy speculation that can tear a team apart, especially one with three elite QBs. Who would start? Who would transfer? How could Urban Meyer keep everyone happy?
Such high-class problems are at the root of this season's fits and starts. In September, Ohio State scored only 20 points and gave up 13 against a MAC school, Northern Illinois. The Buckeyes' seven-point win at Indiana to begin October had the trappings of a loss. The next Saturday, they were still tied early in the second half against Maryland, which has performed this year as though it belongs in the MAC.
Over the second half of the season, Ohio State has hit its stride, while whatever gains Miller has earned have been met with a step back. A week after Rutgers, he beat a Minnesota corner on a deep post, smoothly making the catch before getting thrown to the ground, his head slamming the turf. He would exit that game and get only two touches the next week, losing 4 yards, at Illinois.
In late November, these questions remain: Has Ohio State, ranked No. 3 by the College Football Playoff committee, progressed enough to repeat as national champ? And has Miller shown the specialized skills at receiver to have a career beyond January?
MILLER'S TROUBLES BEGAN innocently enough, at the Orange Bowl against Clemson on Jan. 3, 2014. Tackled on the fifth play of the game, he landed on his right elbow. Pain shot through his shoulder, but he shrugged it off, throwing for 234 yards in a 40-35 loss. The next month, Miller had surgery to repair a torn labrum, the ring of cartilage where the shoulder socket attaches to the shoulder ligaments.
Miller sat out spring practice, expecting to return to fall camp 100 percent, prepared to push Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota for the 2014 Heisman Trophy. But on Aug. 18, while cautiously testing his shoulder in preseason drills, he tossed a simple, short pass to a cutting receiver, no more than a flick of the wrist. "It popped out," Miller says of his shoulder. He had reinjured the labrum. "I have never felt pain like that in my life, and I never want to go through it again."
Drew Brees, the Saints quarterback who had his own labrum repaired, phoned to offer support. "He was just explaining to me what happened, how he overcame it, how he fought through it," Miller says. "His was worse than mine. He's still playing quarterback." As encouraging as that conversation might have been, it couldn't mask the reality of Miller's position after a second surgery performed by James Andrews, the 73-year-old orthopedist to the all-stars. With his right arm in a sling, Miller had never felt further from his team.
"[There was] a lot of alone time," Miller says. "Two shoulder surgeries aren't the easiest thing. The hardest part was, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if my shoulder was going to come back healthy or if I was going to have to sit out again this year. I stopped a lot of things. You know, stopped going out, partying. I just focused on what I really wanted to accomplish, and my shoulder." (Teammates have taken to calling him Uncle Braxton.)
He set a goal: After six months of rehab, he wanted to throw the ball 55 yards with relative ease, "the breaking point on some guys' top-end deep balls," he says. Miller made several visits to Andrews' office in Alabama, where he underwent rounds of strength testing, monitoring the progress of his recovery.
"I knew after the last checkup that I wasn't ready for quarterback," he says. "I couldn't throw over 40 yards. I was throwing hard, about 70 mph, 20 yards. But I couldn't throw over 40 yards. There's no point in playing quarterback if you can't throw over 40 yards. It was devastating."
Having graduated from Ohio State last December, Miller was eligible to transfer and play immediately. Florida State, LSU and Alabama were reportedly among the schools that expressed interest, along with Oregon, Mississippi and Duke. "[Transferring] wasn't real real," says Kevin Miller, Braxton's father. "He didn't know how his shoulder was going to develop. And it would be useless to transfer and then you can't play the position that you transferred for. Then you're trying to switch to another position, and you're coming to another program. That's going to be super hard. And his loyalty has always lied with Ohio State. We needed a backup plan. We knew that he was athletic enough. We knew he could catch, and we knew what he could do with the ball in his hands."
By June, father and son agreed that remaining in Columbus wasn't just the best option, it was the only one. And playing receiver -- even if Jones or Barrett were to get banged up, become ineffective or enter Meyer's doghouse -- was his only choice. "Unless I was going to go play basketball," Braxton says. The last time he had played basketball competitively was at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, which is also where he last lined up at wideout. Miller played the first half of his first game at the position. He was under center to start the second half, never looking back except for a few plays at receiver, for laughs, in the 2011 Under Armour All-America Game.
But to keep his NFL hopes alive, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Miller would now have to learn how to be a wide receiver in earnest. He took his first steps during clandestine evening workouts this spring with Barrett and Jones, wideout Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell. Miller is a superior athlete with elite speed and hand-eye coordination, yet he would soon confront a significant break, both philosophical and physical, between his old and new positions.
"As a quarterback or running back, you work on a horizontal plane," says Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith. "As a receiver, you have to take that athletic ability and transfer it onto a vertical plane. On a post route, most athletes, when running full speed, will slow down and their steps will get choppy as they change direction onto an angle of departure. A receiver who is well-versed will be fluid and smooth. They'll put their foot in the ground with body language and accelerate out, and their stride won't shorten. You can be shifty after the catch. But you don't want to be shifty in a route."
Miller was making a switch that has become increasingly common for players between high school and college. Over the past couple of decades, as the spread and read-option offenses have come to dominate the prep game, coaches increasingly have put their most talented athlete at QB, a kid who can make things happen with his legs as much as his arm. But the makeover becomes that much more difficult when it happens later, between college and the NFL combine, for spread QBs who lack the size, dropback ability and arm strength to succeed on Sundays.
The current model for this transition is Julian Edelman, a 5-10, 200-pound quarterback in college who has become one of Tom Brady's go-to targets. "Julian's a smart guy," says New Mexico State coach Doug Martin, who coached Edelman at Kent State. "Pro scouts don't like to project people into something they haven't ever seen them do before. We tried to help him his senior year by putting him back to return punts. There are not many quarterbacks who are also your punt returner. But we did that so scouts could see that he could do those types of things."
For Miller, a season-long head start on others likely destined to switch (TCU QB Trevone Boykin, for one) could be a blessing. "They don't do a lot of coaching [in the NFL]," Smith says. "You can't ask a kid to try to learn receiver when he's already there. That's something he's got to develop and be tutored in before he's there."
Even though doubt crept in as Miller practiced routes and blocking, he ultimately accepted that his fate in 2015 and beyond lay in the hands of two guys who used to back him up.
"I went through a lot of hard times," he says. "A lot of depressing moments for me and my family. I just, you know, crossed [QB] out, and I focused on receiver."
THE BUCKEYES' NEWEST target executed a grand entrance to preseason practice. Miller arrived at the team hotel in a Camaro -- white with black racing stripes -- driven by Regis Williams, a fellow Ohio State student and friend from high school. Following the Camaro was a drone, filming from overhead. Williams was compiling video for a Miller comeback film titled The Return of the Real. (The documentary, like its subject, remains a work in progress.)
Ohio State quickly enacted a no-fly zone over the practice field. But as fall camp ramped up, with Miller, Barrett and Jones healthy and the Buckeyes preparing to defend a national title, the team facility did take on the feel of a movie set. And the trio received the star treatment around town. "Man, shoo, it's crazy," Miller says of the stir that he, Barrett and Jones can create, recounting an August trip to the Polaris Fashion Place mall. "We bring Hollywood to Columbus. The three-headed monster." Making their way through the mall, they came upon a sports apparel store. In the window display was Miller's old No. 5 jersey -- being sold on clearance. "I don't want to see No. 5 no more," says Miller, who traded the number to redshirt freshman receiver Johnnie Dixon for No. 1. "If I see it in the stores hanging up, I get that funny feeling in my stomach. The type of tragic situations I went through -- it would just give me flashbacks of what happened." In No. 1, he finds deeper meaning: "I only got one shot to do it."
On Labor Day in Blacksburg, Virginia, in his first game at wide receiver, Miller showed a national television audience just how seriously he was taking his last season. Against Virginia Tech, the only team to beat the Buckeyes last year, Miller touched the ball eight times -- five rushes, three catches -- and scored two long touchdowns. On a 53-yard score in the third quarter, he executed a balletic spin move that pierced the Hokies' defense and kicked off the college football highlight season. "It just popped into my blood when I got the ball in my hands," Miller says. After one game, with a single, instinctively artistic maneuver, he was apparently back.
However, lost amid the praise was the fact that Miller had executed the play on a run after a direct snap, not a catch over the middle, and had juked a down lineman, not a defensive back. It was Miller the athlete, not Miller the receiver. And as Ohio State's schedule played out, his snaps decreased. Meyer understood what Miller could do with the ball, but he wasn't confident in Miller's capacity as a fully formed wide receiver. "He didn't know what to do," Meyer says flatly.
While innately talented to dazzle with ball in hand, Miller had yet to grasp the thankless, yet fundamental, aspects of his new position. "He wasn't completely ready to be thrown in a game where we ask him to stalk-block a linebacker," Smith says. "That's something he didn't really understand. Coach Meyer was a little apprehensive."
In OSU's third game, the one against Northern Illinois, Miller had four carries and no receptions. Against Western Michigan the next week, he tallied 38 total yards. Then, against Indiana, he had one rush, one catch, 5 yards in all. He had become a forgotten piece in a struggling offense. Jones was starting and Barrett was entering the game in the red zone, but both performed inconsistently enough to beg the questions: Could Miller -- even with a 40-yard shoulder -- be more valuable at his former position? Was he even cut out to be a receiver?
For every Edelman, there is a Terrelle Pryor, another Ohio State star QB who attempted to transition to wideout with the Browns over the summer, only to be cut before the season. In fact, there are only a few players in the NFL today who have made the switch successfully, and most started the move well before draft season: The Packers' Randall Cobb began his career as Kentucky's QB but moved to receiver full time at the end of his freshman year; Cameron Meredith, a rookie wideout with the Bears, played two seasons of backup QB at Illinois State; and Cecil Shorts III, a wideout for the Texans, was a part-time QB as a freshman at D3 Mount Union before switching. B.J. Daniels did spend his entire career under center at South Florida, but in his third NFL season, the wideout remains relegated to the Seahawks' practice squad.
"You don't realize how much goes into what the receiver does," Cobb says. "It takes time. Being able to get in a comfortable stance that allows you to get off of press coverage. Just the little technique and speed cuts. Bursting and turning. Being able to use your leverage. There was so much to go into it that you had to work on it on a daily basis. Especially when you go from playing quarterback, where you're worrying about dropping back and your footwork."
Through the season's first five games, Meyer treated Miller mostly as a package player, inserting him in passing or short-yardage situations, when he wouldn't be required to handle complicated blocking assignments. Not counting his breakout against the Hokies, Miller had just five catches for 34 yards in that span.
"It is difficult for a guy, especially a guy trying to grow into a position, to not get a lot of opportunities," says ESPN analyst Joey Galloway, an All-Big Ten receiver at Ohio State and a 16-year NFL veteran. "I always found it tough to not be in the flow of the game and then be expected to make a play. If you're playing 30, 35 plays a game, you're spending more than half the game on the sidelines. It is tough to become a playmaker."
THERE IS A MOMENT in Ohio State's game against Rutgers that epitomizes Braxton Miller's frustrations, this mental limbo between the quarterback he used to be and the receiver he's been forced to become. In the first quarter, he streaks free of coverage and races down the middle of the field. He is all alone for a sure, easy touchdown. The Rutgers defense fails to see him. So does Barrett, who is playing his first game this season as the Buckeyes' official starter. Miller jogs back to the huddle, uncertain whether another opportunity will arise.
Later, with 3:45 left in the first half, Miller does get his shot. Facing single coverage, 45 yards down the right sideline, he has beaten his man. But Barrett's pass is underthrown. Miller spins around to locate it. The ball darts through his hands, bouncing off his lap. It smacks the defender's leg, then careens into Miller's face mask, all of this transpiring in an instant. As he falls to the turf, Miller instinctively reaches up and grabs the ball, rolling over to secure it. Pure athlete or budding wide receiver?
In the halftime chow line in the Rutgers press box, two men in OSU gear engage in this exchange:
Buckeye 1: (shaking his head) You see that one? Again.
Buckeye 2: (admonishing tone) That's not the way you look at it. He made a great catch.
Buckeye 1: And that one last week, the touchdown he almost dropped.
Buckeye 2: You don't look at it that way. Braxton makes the amazing catch.
Such is the burden of making the switch on the biggest of stages, as part of the defending national champs. It's not enough to make a circus catch -- the circus catch must appear routine. More than that, the catch is only one part of the job.
"You watch his film now, he's one of my better blockers," Smith says. "Which is crazy to think about, but he really is. He's become a complete receiver. He has developed from a package guy to a guy we can have in the game at any time. There's no concern about what the playcall is because we know he'll execute as good as anybody."
IT'S OCT. 30, the Friday of the Buckeyes' bye week, and Braxton Miller is having his picture taken. A photographer is set up in a far corner of Ohio State's indoor field house along with his three-man crew.
Before the shoot began, the photographer had asked OSU's PR man, Jerry Emig, whether Miller might throw a few passes for the camera. Emig immediately nixed the proposal. "Braxton hurt his shoulder on a simple little throw," Emig says. "I was there. They brought the cart out, and I thought, 'Who is that for?' And then, 'Oh, no.' So, no, Braxton's not throwing any passes. I'm not gonna get fired over a photo shoot."
Miller rarely showed enthusiasm for being the public face of the Buckeyes, but now that he is no longer their leading man, he's warming to the reheated attention. Against a white backdrop, he's in full pads, dressed in his No. 1 jersey. His Camaro-driving friend, Regis Williams, is deejaying hip-hop through a portable speaker. With the photographer's strobe light popping off, this is starting to feel like a party.
Miller is enrolled in the minimum course load -- two online classes -- to stay eligible for football. As the scheduled one-hour shoot stretches into two, he says, "Man, I got nothing else to do today."
When Emig is called into another meeting, the crew takes a break to address a technical concern and Miller steps away from the set. He walks onto the practice field. As he reaches the hashmarks, he says, "Reminds me of the old days."
Miller crouches. He's getting into position under an imaginary center. "Y'all want me back at quarterback," he says. He slaps his hands together, asking for the ball. "Going back to my days, baby." Miller makes a sound like he's sitting down to a hot meal: "Mmm-mmm."
Quickly, he jerks his hands toward his chest, where he cups an imaginary football. He backpedals through a four-step drop. Abruptly, he hits the brakes, keeps position, bouncing on the balls of his feet. His right arm is cocked. He looks into the distance, scanning for a target. There's that old feeling, when he was in control, knew where everything was headed. And then the smile drops off his face. His lips part. Out there, where the invisible receivers are crossing and breaking, Braxton Miller sees a familiar figure.