Braxton Miller was the Big Ten’s most valuable player in both 2012 and 2013 before injuring his shoulder before last season. He will compete with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett for the starting job this fall. ASSOCIATED PRESS
INDIANAPOLIS — George Whitfield traveled to the NFL scouting combine this week with some of the event’s headline names, his roster of clients including former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston of Florida State and Baylor’s Bryce Petty.
But to hear the quarterback whisperer tell it, the most exciting senior college football player is not at Lucas Oil Stadium.
He is a three-hour drive east on I-70 — Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
“The image of Braxton as of late is in sweatpants on the sidelines with a sling and you kind of forget this was college football's super hero the last two years,” said Whitfield, a 37-year-old Tiffin University graduate who runs a San Diego-based quarterback academy and is one of the fiercely private Miller’s closest confidants.
“There have been very talented guys and very prolific guys. Jameis has been very prolific and Marcus is very talented. But Braxton is a super hero.”
And Whitfield expects Miller will wear his cape again.
In a wide-ranging interview at the combine on Thursday, Whitfield refuted speculation Miller entertained transferring from Ohio State, said the two-time Big Ten MVP has no plans to switch positions, and expressed excitement at the pace of the quarterback’s recovery from a torn labrum.
Miller recently began throwing a football for the first time since undergoing surgery in August. Twice a week, he sends Whitfield video of his throwing sessions, which have advanced to include long toss.
Asked if Miller would be full strength by the start of fall camp in August — a timetable widely considered ambitious — Whitfield said, “Oh, yeah, that’s very realistic. When the summer hits, and those guys begin summer workouts [in June], he'll be 100 percent.”
“He's looking stronger, getting more and more fluid,” Whitfield said. “I just love the progress he's making.”
Miller’s progress represents the latest development in the most fascinating drama in college football.
With all indications now pointing to Miller’s return, the Buckeyes would have the three most heralded quarterbacks in the Big Ten next season. Already, the sports book Bovada has installed Cardale Jones (14-1), J.T. Barrett (16-1), and Miller (18-1) among the top 15 Heisman favorites, and everyone has an opinion on what Ohio State should do.
Most suspect the opening-day nod will go to Jones, who replaced the Heisman candidate (Barrett) who replaced the Heisman candidate (Miller), and led the Buckeyes’ unlikely run to the national title.
“If I had to guess, I would say Cardale,” former Buckeyes receiver Devin Smith said Thursday during a break from his workouts. “Just because his momentum is going uphill right now.”
Jeff Heuerman laughed.
“You know I can’t answer that, come on,” said the ex-OSU tight end, who wore Miller’s No. 5 to honor his injured classmate last season. “When I was younger, I would have answered.”
Miller too has remained silent, last speaking to a reporter in August. Whitfield said Miller “teared up” and was “wrecked” after blowing out his shoulder weeks before last season. But his outlook soon shifted, helped by a call from Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose career was threatened by a torn labrum in 2006.
“Drew Brees called him and [Miller] said that picked his spirits up,” Whitfield said. “He had the same procedure, and he knows that with Brees, it seemed like it was all but over and he more than revitalized himself and turned himself into a Hall of Fame quarterback. He's got every confidence from that standpoint. I always smile when people say his shoulder seems shot, that it's time to get to running back, time to get to punt returner.”
In that vein, Whitfield stressed that Miller is committed to playing quarterback — and only quarterback — this season. A blistering dual threat, Miller required much polish as a passer even before the injury, fueling speculation he would entertain a position switch to better sell himself to potential NFL suitors.
Whitfield also said Miller, who grew up outside Dayton, never considered leaving Columbus as the quarterback derby grew increasingly crowded.
“He is a Buckeye,” Whitfield said. “He’s a Buckeye. He’s one of those kids who had Ohio State wallpaper growing up.”
Instead, Miller appears intent on re-entering the fray at Ohio State this fall.
Whitfield heaped praise on all three Buckeyes quarterbacks. But while he won’t say who he thinks should be the starter, it is clear where his loyalties — and, perhaps, biases — lie. It has been more than two years since he added Miller to a client list that also counts former No. 1 picks Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, and veteran Pro Bowler Ben Roethlisberger. They spent a week training together in San Diego after the 2012 season and have remained in close touch.
If Miller was healthy last season, Whitfield said, “[Ohio State] would have blown teams out. I don’t think it would have been as exciting.”
“Had Braxton played and ... you saw the development of the running game and you saw the young receivers like Mike Thomas and Devin Smith. You saw what the defense was able to do. You saw that [offensive coordinator] Tom Herman was on a heater this year and coach [Urban] Meyer was just masterful in how they approached each team. You have a veteran like Braxton, a two-time player of the year, he can draw from all that veteran experience, I mean, they would have been looking for the Roman Army to take on if he’d been leading them.“
Can the Miller of old return?
”One hundred percent,” Whitfield said, “and I don’t say that lightly.”
“I encourage people,” he added, “please don’t forget that this is college football's baddest man right here.”