Braxton Miller is not the best dual-threat quarterback in college football history. Not yet, anyway.
The rising junior signal-caller of Ohio State put together a monster season in 2012, rushing for 1,271 yards and passing for 2,039 more while accumulating 28 touchdowns. Not too shabby for a guy in his first year with a new head coach and a new offense.
More than just the numbers, though, Miller proved himself to be the lifeblood of that Buckeye offense, continually rushing for key first downs or breaking off ridiculous moves to get himself into the end zone.
The sky is the limit for Miller, who spent some time in the offseason with a private quarterback coach in California who came away raving about Miller's arm talent (Buckeye Extra via The Columbus DIspatch). But what Miller reportedly told that coach—that he left too many plays on the field in 2012—is absolutely right, and before he can consider himself a serious Heisman contender (he was fifth last year, but the margin was chasmic) he needs to be a more consistent player.
In particular, Miller's struggles came in the intermediate passing game. His QB coach is right—he does have ridiculous arm talent, and his placement on deep passes is exquisite. But there's a reason why Jake Stoneburner fell off the face of the earth as an upperclassman, and it wasn't that weird arrest. Miller just never found him with any reliability, and as a result the guy putting up really nice combine drill numbers ended up with 30 catches for 462 yards over the last two years combined.
But Miller and the Ohio State staff know that he needs improvement, and really that one aspect of intermediate passing (as big an aspect as it is) is all Miller doesn't have going for him. He's an elite runner. His throwing mechanics are solid. His arm strength is as good as you can ask for. And he is one tough son of a gun.
So let's look at some other elite dual-threat QBs and see how Miller stacks up with them thus far and how far Miller needs to go to be on—or even surpass—their level.
Love him or hate him or make fun of him for not being able to pass Mark "Butt Fumble" Sanchez on the Jets' depth chart, Tim Tebow is the gold standard of college dual-threat quarterbacks. He has a Heisman Trophy. He has a national championship. He holds five career NCAA records and 14 more in the SEC, to say nothing of the marks he set at Florida (roughly infinity records). He made the blue 15 jersey the official shirt of the state of Florida.
We've talked before about the differences between Tebow and Miller—Tebow is a bull, Miller is a gazelle—and the fact is that we'll take someone with Miller's rushing ability over someone with Tebow's. The stats bear this out; Miller has rushed for 5.1 yards per carry so far, including 5.6 last season. Tebow's career YPC was 4.3.
The passing, however, is what still sets Tebow apart for now.
Sure, we think of Tebow as the guy whose throwing mechanics are slow and whose reads leave plenty to be desired, but in college he was a great passer. He left Florida as the SEC's record-holder for passing efficiency, and he was second in the NCAA on that same mark. He led the SEC in career passing percentage (67.3 percent) and is third in the NCAA in yards per attempt (9.33). Miller's got a long way to go before he touches either of those numbers in a season, much less for his career.
Still, the elite talent's there, and if an elite work ethic comes with it, Miller's going to be right up there with Tebow in less time than you'd think.
Robert Griffin III
Another recent deserving Heisman winner, Griffin spurned an offer from Texas to play safety for the Longhorns out of high school. We're guessing Mack Brown would like that scouting decision back.
Griffin's athleticism is downright freakish—he ran a 4.41 at the NFL combine, and he set Texas state records in two different hurdles races in high school. But he wasn't all that interested in running at Baylor, though that may have as much to do with head coach Art Briles cutting down his workload after a season-ending ACL tear as a sophomore.
Griffin failed to crack 700 yards rushing in either of his last two seasons, and if Miller had a bowl game in 2012, his season rushing total likely would have topped Griffin's last two years combined.
But good heavens, did Griffin ever turn into an elite passer. He spent several weeks in 2011 with almost as many touchdowns on the season as incompletions (20 incompletions, 18 TDs after four weeks), and he finished 2011 behind only Russell Wilson nationally in passing efficiency.
Maybe Miller gets to that level one day. Maybe. If he does develop into a dangerous passer, though, it'll be interesting to see what Meyer does to Miller's rushing workload. As mentioned earlier, Briles cut down on Griffin's rushes. But Meyer didn't afford that same luxury to Tebow, and Briles ain't the one calling shots in Columbus these days.
Cam Newton's Heisman-winning campaign in 2010 was one of the greatest seasons of football we've seen from any quarterback. In terms of size and athleticism, he's got no equal. And lest you think he was just a pure "system" guy, he was 15th in the NFL in passing efficiency last season with a pretty ho-hum cast of receivers; noted passing extraordinaire Jay Cutler of the Bears had Brandon Marshall to throw to all year, and Cutler finished 20th. So the guy can throw.
But at the same time, Newton was kind of a system guy at Auburn. You'll see several instances where he's throwing to a wide-open receiver or running up a full head of steam before anyone's in position to lay a hand on him. It's easy to run up stats like that. Of course, the majority of the plays here are Newton getting by on that freakish talent. We said he was kind of a system guy.
Fortunately, Miller's kind of a system guy too. We've seen Meyer do great things with dual-threat QBs as a coach. He's already using Miller uniquely and effectively, and that's not going to change in the coming years. So it's not as if Miller's got talents that are being wasted or anything like that; if he's on Newton's level, we'll know.
Let's also point out that Newton's roughshod romp through college football came in his fourth season after high school. Miller's about to enter his third. In Nelson's second year at Florida, he won the backup role behind Tebow, then hurt his ankle and took a redshirt year, then stole a kid's laptop and threw it out the window when the cops showed up. Ignominious stuff, that.
So while Newton looks to have his head on straight these days, it's still a little foolish to compare his Auburn stint with anything Miller has accomplished so far. They're at different points in their career.
What we'd like to see is Miller get to this level as a player. Obviously he won't progress all the way there physically—that's not the way human bodies work—but that mix of rushing and throwing talent is nothing short of sensational. We need to be able to talk the same way about Miller before the "best ever" talk continues. We yet might.
Of course, just when you think Miller's in position to reach the highest echelon of dual-threat QBs, old Johnny Football over here is threatening to detonate this entire conversation.
Manziel became the first freshman to earn the Heisman Trophy with a season that was nothing short of brilliant both through the air and on the ground. He rushed for 1,410 yards and 21 TDs. He threw for over 3,700 yards and 26 more scores. He only threw nine interceptions. That's a good thousand yards better than what Cam Newton accomplished—and against SEC defenses.
If Manziel keeps his head on straight and stays that productive in college, he's not only a strong candidate for the greatest dual-threat QB to ever hit the college gridiron, he's going to blow most of the people we're talking about out of the water. Quarterbacks just don't do what he's doing.
And let's also be clear—if Miller ever wants to be a legitimate Heisman candidate, Manziel is the guy on whom Miller's going to have to make the most progress. He is the benchmark going forward.