- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- His greatest asset was effectively removed by the black non-contact jersey and the play calls coming in from the sideline.
It didn’t help that Braxton Miller didn’t have a full complement of offensive linemen in front of him, either, which would have made his dynamic legs even more useful had he really been able to turn them loose.
But the Ohio State quarterback had his arm and some improved mechanics, and that was all Miller needed in leading his Scarlet team to an easy 31-14 win in the Buckeyes' spring game on Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. And given how much of his Heisman Trophy campaign a year ago centered on his rushing ability, even just a glimpse in a low-pressure setting of a more confident passer might kick his next push for the statue to another gear heading into the offseason.
“You saw [the passing game] last year,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “So we’re spending a lot of time talking about a part of our game where if we can figure that out, I would be disappointed if we’re not the best offense in the Big Ten.”
Ohio State already had that in 2012, even with a limited ability to air it out. Miller’s electrifying athleticism more than made up for a passing attack that was clearly a work in progress.
The transformation into an even more potent version of the spread offense in Meyer’s second season with the program is far from complete, and the Buckeyes don’t yet have all the pieces on campus they need to complement Miller and veteran receivers Philly Brown and Devin Smith on the perimeter. But when the junior had time to throw, or a little room to get creative as a scrambler without being tagged down by a relentless group of defensive linemen, Miller showed more than a few signs that he’ll be able to make good use of anybody the Buckeyes wind up putting around him.
And his own personal arsenal appears to be expanding, based on the variety of throws he made that didn’t seem to be part of his game a year ago.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Miller said. “Just knowing the plays, how the plays develop, where the guys are going to be and I can just move around the pocket; I know where everybody is going to be.
“I would say guys last year, they were just going out there and hoping they could get open. It was tough with the transition to the new offense, but this year -- it’s night and day.”
The Buckeyes obviously weren’t fumbling around in the darkness on the way to a perfect season, and Miller was clearly a handful for opposing teams, even if he was just scratching the surface of his ability en route to a fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
But had he been able to deliver pinpoint accuracy on back-shoulder throws to Brown -- as he did for a touchdown on Saturday -- or apply some of the deft touch on deep balls while on the move -- as he did on a strike to Smith -- or make smarter decisions to cut losses and throw the ball away -- as the more mature version of Miller did in the exhibition -- maybe he would have earned an invitation to New York last December.
And while it’s far too early to address any envelopes at this point, the progress was hard to ignore, even if the scrimmage victory and Miller's 16-for-25, 217-yard, two-touchdown passing performance doesn’t really count for anything.
“You see, fundamentally he’s pretty good,” Meyer said. “When it breaks down, that’s when it starts to go. But I thought today it was pretty good.
“He had a couple situations where it didn’t look very good, where it went back to the old days -- [wild] with the ball and running instead of keeping eyes down the field. But he’s much improved, and we have to improve everyone around him. We’ve got to become legitimate with where we’re at, and I think we have the people and some guys coming in June. We have our work cut out for us, but Braxton had a good spring.”
It’s over now. But the way it ended didn’t do anything to temper expectations for Miller -- or the Buckeyes.
4dDan Murphy and Austin Ward