When Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller was injured delivering a routine pass in practice Aug. 18, teammates at first weren’t exactly sure what happened. At least that’s how Curtis Grant remembers it.
“The mood, suddenly everybody just lost focus because he’s the leader of this team, especially with the quarterback, coming in and doing the things that he did,” Grant, also a captain, told reporters several days later. “It’s a big loss, but we’re going to be all right.”
It’s the message Coach Urban Meyer has been delivering as well to players in the aftermath of the devastating news, offering calm reassurance even in the face of the worst possible injury at just about the worst possible time. The Buckeyes open the season Saturday afternoon in Baltimore against Navy, which nearly upset them five years ago at Ohio Stadium.
Back then, Ohio State had future NFL draft pick Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. This time J.T. Barrett is the starter, and surrounding the redshirt freshman will be four new offensive linemen, a new running back and several untested wide receivers.
Miller’s cunning, escapability and arm strength were supposed to make up for the Buckeyes’ dearth of experience on offense. The Ohio State coaching staff instead has been busy trying to get Barrett ready for his debut against an opponent that received votes in the preseason top 25 and since 2003 has 21 wins against Power Five schools, the most by a non-Power Five program.
“We’re not naïve to the situation,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “We understand what happened and what we lost…. We’ve got a lot of playmakers, and we’re going to have to rely on them a lot to make plays. Obviously it’s not how you draw it up.”
Barrett (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) did receive extensive work during spring drills when Miller was recovering from surgery on the same shoulder in February, stemming from an injury in the Orange Bowl. Miller began working his way back slowly in the summer, with Barrett taking first-team reps during the early portion of training camp and subsequently when Miller felt arm soreness.
Also in the mix to play perhaps at some point this season is Cardale Jones. The third-year sophomore is the only quarterback on the roster with college game experience from when he took snaps against Florida A&M, Penn State and Purdue last season.
“We [have] got to start seeing this young man develop,” Meyer said in a conference call this week when asked about Barrett. “We all thought he would. We recruited him, and he comes from a really good high school program, a really incredible family, and all those positives are coming out right now. I saw it before the injury, but you really see it now.”
Thrusting a redshirt freshman quarterback into the national spotlight and thriving is no rarity for programs at the level of Ohio State. Last season Jameis Winston became the first freshman to win a BCS national championship. Two years ago, Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy, and Everett Golson directed Notre Dame to the BCS national championship game. Also in 2012, Kevin Hogan led Stanford to a Rose Bowl victory, and UCLA’s Brett Hundley claimed the Pac-12 South title.
The only freshman quarterback to win a national championship without redshirting was Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
“They’ve been trained for a year and a half about how you can’t control events,” Meyer said of his players. “You can control your response to events. This is as difficult an event as we have to deal with when your captain goes down, and he happens to be a quarterback who’s very important. They’ve handled it well. Like we all are around here, we’re ready to go play.”