COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The guy with the higher stock indicated he was leaning toward staying.
The one with all the uncertainty surrounding him declared himself ready for the next level and seemed to tilt toward the exit.
But with Ryan Shazier perhaps too hot of a commodity to return for another year in college and Braxton Miller at least giving the impression that he’s willing to bet on himself, that combination could be a problem for No. 7 Ohio State. It might leave them without both stars after Friday night’s Discover Orange Bowl and some mighty big shoes to fill when the Buckeyes start turning their attention to the 2014 season and what could be another run at a national title.
Is the matchup against Clemson the final time the playmaking linebacker and the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year will put on Ohio State uniforms? What impact will those decisions have the Buckeyes moving forward?
As both the deadline to declare for the draft and the Discover Orange Bowl both creep up, it’s time to peek into the crystal ball.
After yet another incredibly productive campaign stuffing the stats sheet in every conceivable way, there’s really not much Shazier has left to prove as a college linebacker. He can make tackles anywhere on the field, he’s shown an uncanny ability to time the snap as a blitzer and use his athleticism to make plays in the backfield and he’s consistently delivered timely plays when the Buckeyes have needed them most.
But even with all that on his resume, Shazier publicly called himself “dead-flat in the middle” between staying or going before giving a slight edge to the former during bowl practices.
If he stays: The Buckeyes have been building toward the 2014 season with strong recruiting at every level of the defense, though linebacker still remains the position with the lowest margin for error based on the depth on hand. Having Shazier stick around would keep the entire starting front seven intact heading into next year, which could make it even more difficult to run the ball against Ohio State and take some pressure off what figures to be a young secondary.
If he goes: There will still be plenty of talent and experience on the Ohio State defense, but it will need some fresh faces to develop quickly and fill the void on the outside. Trey Johnson was a prized commodity in the signing class a year ago, and he might need to be ready to live up to his potential next fall.
Shazier’s ESPN.com position rank: No. 4 outside linebacker
Prediction: Enters the NFL draft
There’s hardly any room to criticize Miller at the competitive level he’s playing at now, and few players have ever accumulated hardware at the rate he’s been on over the last two seasons at quarterback. He’s obviously won a few games, too.
But projecting Miller at the next level gets a bit trickier, because his passing numbers dipped down the stretch and professional general managers will undoubtedly be picking apart his arm and accuracy when they decide where to draft him to lead an NFL offense.
When pressed about his future, Miller said he was “definitely” ready to play at the next level in terms of his physical ability, but he was still waiting for some feedback from the draft evaluators before making a decision that is expected within about a week after the bowl game.
If he stays: The Buckeyes have four starters to replace on the offensive line and Carlos Hyde won’t be in the backfield to help share the load, but Miller’s presence alone in Urban Meyer’s spread offense should ensure a lot of points on the board yet again. Ohio State has recruited well at the skill positions and has veteran targets like wide receiver Devin Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman returning, so Miller certainly wouldn’t have to do it all himself to keep things humming along for what would again figure to be a dynamic attack.
If he goes: Eventually Miller is going to have to be replaced, but the Buckeyes would clearly prefer to put that off for another year. Invaluable backup Kenny Guiton will be gone after this season, putting rising sophomore Cardale Jones and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett in line for the marquee role for a potential title contender. Jones is big, strong and mobile and would likely have the edge heading to spring practice, but Barrett has been widely praised for his football intelligence since arriving on campus and could make a strong push for the job.
Miller’s ESPN.com position rank: No. 13 quarterback
Prediction: Returns for senior season