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Miller leads 'All-Heavy Lifting' team

4/5/2013

Where would Ohio State have been in 2012 without Braxton Miller? Almost certainly not undefeated. Where will Ohio State be in 2013 without Braxton Miller? Almost certainly not undefeated.

It's a team sport, arguably more than any other on the planet, but some players are simply more valuable than others. Along with increasing value, there is corresponding pressure. So leading off with OSU's junior quarterback, consider this the All-Heavy Lifting team -- players whose burdens are a little heavier than those around them.

A dual-threat QB like Miller, or Heisman winner Johnny Manziel for that matter, is a natural starting point for the conversation because of the amount of time he has the ball in his hands.

• Miller ran or threw on 57.5 percent of the Buckeyes' 837 plays in 2012, accounting for 65.1 percent of the team's 5,085 total yards.

• Manziel, meanwhile, had the ball on 62 percent of Texas A&M's 1,025 plays, accounting for 70.5 percent of the team's 7,260 total yards.

Right there, you can see why Miller was in the Heisman discussion -- and why Manziel won it. And both were playing for new coaches, interestingly enough.

Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and Manziel's new position coach, Jake Spavital, told me a couple of weeks ago that they are not at all concerned about how Manziel will react to an even heightened level of pressure and responsibility. There's a lot more to Manziel, it turns out, than on-field freelancing and putting the "social" in social media.

"People just don't know how driven the kid is," Sumlin said. "There's no one that's harder on Johnny than Johnny. He'll be fine."

As for Miller, I checked in Thursday with BuckeyeNation's Austin Ward. He reminded me that Miller was kind of forced into action in 2011, after Terrelle Pryor took off and the program was left on shaky ground. So last season was really Miller's first chance to develop as an all-around player.

In a way, the fact that the Bucks were ineligible for the postseason should have taken some of the heat off his sophomore season, allowing him to adjust to Urban Meyer's system. But as the fall continued, Miller became a fringe Heisman contender and OSU, as a team, had the increasing build toward a perfect season.

The Buckeyes completed the 12-0 campaign and Miller averaged a healthy 6.88 yards per play and scored 28 total TDs. And that was without nearly the level of talent that Manziel had in front of and around him.

"There could have been training wheels," Ward said, "but in the end I don't think he needed them."

Well, they're off now. Ward said he has heard this spring that Miller is working to become more of a leader, in a variety of ways, now that the veteran core of the '12 team is gone.

"I think he has welcomed that pressure," Ward said. "I don't think he's been fazed by it. But I don't think he has ever had attention like he does now and like he will."

The word is out too. There will be no surprise factor with either player after a year in their respective systems. Then again, these are special talents.

"We knew enough last year to try not to let him beat us," one SEC assistant said about Manziel. "It didn't work."

Honorable mention quarterback: Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois Huskies

Statistically, Lynch belongs with the quarterbacks mentioned above. He ran or threw on 67.3 percent of the Huskies' 1,023 plays, accounting for a stunning 75.3 percent of the team's 6,574 yards.

If you watched Northern Illinois play last year, you know the team would not have been in a BCS game without Lynch. (Never mind what FSU's defense did to him in the Orange Bowl.)

But what now that coach Dave Doeren is at North Carolina State? At least there was staff continuity with the promotion of Rod Carey, who served as the OC until bowl prep.

I had a guy from a Chicago-area blog ask me in December if, as a Heisman voter, I thought Lynch was worthy of a look last season. My answer, in short, was that he was too new to the scene, but if he duplicated those amazing numbers -- coupled with the fact that he earned some credibility -- he might be a dark horse in 2013. That's still a reach, with players like Miller, Manziel and others around, but you never know. He could back in to a trip to New York, maybe.

The real pressure on the Huskies, including Lynch, is a MAC school backing up a BCS bid.


Running backs

Bishop Sankey, Washington Huskies

This might seem like an odd inclusion, relative to the previously mentioned Heisman candidates, and frankly it was not one I initially intended when sketching out this post. However, after realizing Sankey carried the ball 289 times as a sophomore -- second among FBS backs (to Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who arguably could also merit inclusion) -- it became clearer.

Sankey's 4.98 yards per carry total was so-so, but he sustained an offense that struggled with a young, inexperienced offensive line and a quarterback often trying to do too much.

Here's where the pressure comes in: U-Dub is trying to make a move up the Pac-12 ladder. If Sankey can continue to carry the ball in the neighborhood of 20 times a game, and do so effectively, it could have a settling effect on that regressing QB, Keith Price.

The load needs lightening, with Price going from plus-22 in TDs-to-INTs to just plus-6 as a junior. As a result, Washington's offense did not average much more than Sankey's yards per carry; its 5.11 yards-per-play average was 100th of 120 FBS teams.

Sankey had his moments as a second-year player, including his 61-yard scamper on fourth down that helped upend eventual Pac-12 champ Stanford, and his 205-yard day against Boise State in the bowl game.

Honorable mention: Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Granted, Randle has Jeremy Smith to share the load. However, Randle saw his carries go from 208 to 274 last season while Smith's dropped from 91 to 70. So there's no mistaking who the lead back is, and that's an important distinction to make considering the uncertainty at the quarterback position. The Cowboys have three able souls, but none is exactly threatening to become the next Brandon Weeden overnight.

Plus, there is no Dez Bryant or Justin Blackmon on the outside to draw a defense's attention the way there has been for the past five-plus years. That puts the emphasis more on Randle to keep one of the nation's most efficient offenses -- the Cowboys were third in the country last season in yards per play (7.01) -- chugging along.


Receivers

Marqise Lee, USC Trojans

The pressure of being an elite receiver is different, clearly, because of the uncertainty of touches. You're not in full control, no matter how good a wideout you are. So what do you do if you're Lee, who is far from a secret weapon for the Trojans entering his third season?

That's what I asked Lee's position coach, Tee Martin, when I spoke with him earlier in the week. He reminded me that Lee was perceived this time a year ago as the complement to Robert Woods in the offense. Lee developed, Martin said, into the No. 1 by what he did in the offseason.

I interpreted that to mean this: How those around Lee come along will likely dictate what sort of junior season Lee has, at least to some extent. So Nelson Agholor's progression could be a factor. I would have included George Farmer too, but a knee injury suffered this week will derail a career that just cannot seem to get on track.

How young QBs Max Wittek or Cody Kessler play will undoubtedly affect Lee, but Martin said he has faith in both QBs -- and he has even more in Lee.

"He will make plays," Martin said. "From his freshman to sophomore year, he figured out how to make a 20-yard play into a 70-yard play, [how to] take it to the house. He has that explosive playmaking now."

Lee gets open as a result of better route running and he's strong enough, deceptively so, to break tackles. That's taking it into your own hands as best you can as a receiver.

Honorable mention: Sammy Watkins, Clemson Tigers

Watkins would have been a lock for this list a year ago, but that was before we knew DeAndre Hopkins could quickly develop into Tajh Boyd's go-to receiver. Hopkins left a year early for the NFL, so the onus is again on Watkins.

It's a similar story for Watkins as it is for Lee: The ACC knows the ball is going his way. How do you get it to him? Boyd's experience should be a bonus for Watkins, not to mention Chad Morris' creative offense that features a lot of motion, even handoffs, for Watkins. And Watkins can be an impact player in the return game.

"We expected more from him last season," one ACC assistant told me in January. "We expect more from him this season. We haven't forgotten about him. He's too talented."


Offensive line

Taylor Lewan, Michigan Wolverines

As much as fans (and some media types) laud unexpected decisions to put the NFL on hold, those decisions also create pressure for the returning players. For Lewan, now it's just presumed that he will be the most dominating offensive lineman in the country. Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, another likely first-rounder in 2014, will receive similar treatment after staying in school.

Lewan's decision was no doubt well-received by quarterback Devin Gardner, who enters his first season as the full-time starter. It sounds funny, but I have heard from coaches that, in some ways, blocking for Gardner is easier than it was for a runner like Denard Robinson.

Gardner's protection zone, even though he's still relatively mobile, is a lot more confined and he will not wear out linemen having to chase Robinson around, blocking for him on the perimeter and downfield. Advantage Lewan.

Honorable mention: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee Volunteers

I'd argue that no offensive player in the country talks more about the guy listed next, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney got past Richardson late in last year's Tennessee-South Carolina game for a sack that caused a fumble and ended the Volunteers' chance of a come-from-behind upset.

Richardson took it particularly hard and, even with a new coach and QB at UT, he seems to be pointing already toward one final college meeting with Clowney.

Be careful what you wish for, even if you're a 6-6, 315-pound man nicknamed Tiny.


Defense

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina Gamecocks

For one thing, there's the pressure of playing -- or even living a daily life -- knowing that you're the cinch No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. Can you imagine performing with that over your head? (I cannot.)

With opposite end Devin Taylor's eligibility expiring, and important pieces leaving the secondary each of the past two seasons, it puts even more heat on Clowney's ability to get to the passer. His disruptiveness will say a lot about South Carolina's success on defense, and overall.

Call it a hunch, but I'm not too worried that Clowney will be feeling any heat. Neither is he. The junior is more interested in elevating an already sky-high ceiling.

"I left a lot of plays out there on the field last year. I mean, a lot," he told ESPN.com's Chris Low this week. "I probably left more plays out there than I made."

That's a pretty strong statement for a gentleman who, as Low points out, has 21 sacks in 25 career games.

Honorable mention: Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame Fighting Irish and C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama Crimson Tide

The idea is the same for two of the leaders from last season's title game: Keep it going. That's the case whether it's Notre Dame trying to remain among the elite or Alabama shooting for a third consecutive championship and a galling four in five years. Continuity carries with it some level of pressure, and the units' leadership has to set that tone.

Tuitt's ability to play inside and out makes him a vitally important piece of the defense that will replace not only Manti Te'o but end Kapron Lewis-Moore, who coaches told me all last fall was really underrated. Mosley, at 6-2, 232 pounds, might seem a little undersized to play linebacker in the SEC, but in Kirby Smart's 3-4, and given the increase in spread offenses in the conference, he is a perfect fit for tackling mobility.


Specialists

Kyle Christy, P, Florida Gators

When I spoke last month with Gators coach Will Muschamp about the team's offense, he was hopeful that coordinator Brent Pease and quarterback Jeff Driskel -- both entering their second full year -- would take steps forward.

While it might be better, it is also a stretch to presume it will zoom up the SEC from 12th in 2012 in yards per play (5.25). That again makes Christy, who averaged a silly-good 45.8 yards per punt, a vital weapon for a team that could find itself in additional close games decided by a yard here or a possession there. Christy improved by an incredible 5 yards per punt (on twice as many punts) in 2012. Could he add another yard or 2 for his junior season?