COLUMBUS, Ohio — When one thinks of Russell Wilson's college career, one often thinks about his phenomenal senior season at Wisconsin. But what some don't remember is that before Wilson was the man in Madison, he was a three-year starter at North Carolina State. And while Wilson is the last high-profile player to take advantage of college football's graduate transfer rule, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller could be the next.
It's a complicated situation with plenty of moving parts. And thus far, everybody's saying the right things. But sooner or later, some uncomfortable conversations are going to have to take place in Columbus.
In fact, some already are.
With how well redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has played in the place of Miller since the two-time Big Ten MVP went down with a season-ending injury two weeks prior, the future of the Buckeyes' quarterback position is anything but clear. Privately, media members in Columbus have debated who will be Ohio State's signal-caller next season, as have fans, evidenced by the double-digit paged threads on message boards discussing the topic.
The subject has even caught the eye of NFL draft analysts, who have pondered what a potential move by Miller could mean for the 2016 draft.
"You hate to see a kid leave his school," said Bleacher Report NFL draft lead analyst Matt Miller. "But for his career, I think the best thing would be going to somewhere that’s going to run a little bit more of a pro-style offense and where he would get on the field right away."
No matter what angle you're looking from, the Buckeyes' signal-caller situation is very much up in the air. And how it plays out could ultimately affect the rest of the college football landscape. This isn't a story about what will happen—it's one about what could.
In fact, asked in late September about a potential quarterback controversy, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer stood by Miller, citing the stellar list of accomplishments that he's accumulated in three seasons in Columbus.
“Braxton is our quarterback," Meyer insisted. "To be fair to Braxton, [he’s the] Big Ten Player of the Year. It’s good to know we’ve got both of them.”
But that answer came with Barrett coming off of a 330-yard, four-touchdown passing performance in Ohio State's 50-28 win over Cincinnati on Sept. 27. Since then, the redshirt freshman has only added to his credibility, totaling 2,352 total yards (1,856 passing, 496 rushing) and 29 touchdowns (23 passing, six rushing) through the 7-1 Buckeyes first eight games of the season.
Given both his ability as a passer and efficiency as a runner, some have suggested that Barrett—who on Tuesday was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Davey O'Brien Award, presented annually to the country's top quarterback—is a better fit for Meyer's spread offense than Miller.
“Barrett works better in this offense and I feel like he has a better arm. He is a way better quarterback than Braxton," said Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will face Ohio State this Saturday at Spartan Stadium. “As an athlete, I feel like Braxton Miller was better. As for a quarterback that can fit in the offense, [Barrett] fits really well."
It remains unknown whether Meyer's opinion has shifted from his September vote of confidence for Miller or if it will between now and the start of the 2015 season. But with how well Barrett has played in the past two months, it's hard to imagine him not receiving at least a shot to start in what would be his sophomore season. It would also be nearly impossible to think Meyer would relegate a star like Miller to the bench.
His choice will not be an easy one.
While there are plenty of unknowns that need to be factored in when examining his options, here's what we do know about his current situation:
- In last season's Orange Bowl, Miller suffered a shoulder injury that required outpatient surgery and caused him to miss all of Ohio State's spring practice.
- While both the injury and surgery were described as minor, Miller cited each as reasons for returning to Ohio State for his senior season, rather than entering the NFL draft.
- On Aug. 19, after being brought along slowly throughout fall camp from a physical standpoint, Miller was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, effectively ending his 2014 season.
- Per Meyer, Miller's recovery period is slated for nine to 12 months. That would mean he would miss all of spring practice and potentially most of fall camp.
- On Monday, Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Miller is on or ahead of schedule.
- In a statement released by the school, Miller stated a desire to return to Ohio State as a fifth-year senior in 2015. When asked by B/R on Monday if that was still the plan for Miller, Herman answered, "I believe so."
- According to the same statement, Miller is on pace to graduate this December.
- Per NCAA rules, if a student-athlete completes his undergraduate degree program and finds a different school that doesn't possess the graduate program the player wants to enroll in, he can transfer and play immediately.
Those last two points are important.
Making the safe assumption that one of Miller's primary goals for a potential senior season would be to improve his draft stock, it's hard to envision him returning to Ohio State without the guarantee that he would regain his starting spot. And as mentioned earlier, with the way that Barrett has progressed throughout his freshman season, it's tough to imagine Meyer providing Miller with just that.
As a graduate, Miller's options increase exponentially. Not only could he renege on his plan to return to college and enter the 2015 NFL draft—more on that later—but he could also take advantage of college football's graduate transfer rule, theoretically becoming immediately eligible at any other school in the country.
And while it may seem like a stretch—perhaps surreal—for a player who has accomplished as much as Miller has at Ohio State to suddenly switch schools, a potential move wouldn't be unprecedented.
The Russell Wilson Precedent
In 2011, Wilson was to North Carolina State what Miller is to Ohio State: A soon-to-be senior on the verge of breaking all of his school's career quarterback records. A three-year starter, Wilson had developed into a fan favorite for the Wolfpack, trailing only Phillip Rivers in the NC State history book for career passing touchdowns.
But as Wilson's senior season approached, the 2010 fourth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies organization began flirting with the possibility of a professional baseball career. And with former 4-star prospect Mike Glennon waiting for his turn and eligible to transfer himself with two years of eligibility remaining, former Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien opted to allow Wilson to walk.
"O’Brien didn’t want to risk Russell Wilson changing his mind and not coming back at the end of the summer [after playing baseball] and losing Mike Glennon," Matt Carter, editor of TheWolfpacker.com, told B/R. "He too could have transferred, left and gone somewhere else and then O'Brien would have been left empty-handed.”
Wilson chose to transfer to Wisconsin, where he played immediately and led the Badgers to an 11-3 Big Ten championship season. As a result, Wilson improved his draft stock and became a third-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks.
In the span of three calendar years, Wilson went from living legend in Raleigh to announcing another school as his alma mater on football's biggest stage. That sudden swing in Wilson's legacy is something that still doesn't sit well with the Wolfpack faithful.
"To this day on the message board, it still divides fans to be perfectly honest with you," Carter said. "It seems like half the fans thought it was unfortunate but had to be done, and half the fans think that it didn’t have to be done and [Wilson] should have been allowed to come back.”
North Carolina State's situation in 2011 and what the Buckeyes could be dealing with next season aren't identical, but they do share some similarities.
While Wilson's lack of commitment threw a wrench into NC State's quarterback conundrum, so too does Miller's health—and history of injuries. In the event that his recovery takes a full 12 months, that wouldn't put him back on the field until right before the start of the 2015 campaign, leaving little time to jell with a receiving corps that will look vastly different from the one that he last played with.
According to Carter, that too was something that O'Brien took into consideration when he opted for Glennon's two years of eligibility over Wilson's one. And while it's nearly impossible to imagine Meyer not allowing Miller to return to Columbus if that's what he desires, it's almost just as hard to believe that Miller would be willing to return in a role as the country's most decorated backup assuming improving his draft stock is one of Miller's top concerns.
Braxton Miller's NFL Future
For a player who possessed plenty of question marks before suffering two shoulder injuries, a year of sitting behind or spelling Barrett wouldn't do much to move Miller up teams' draft boards—another reason why a potential transfer could make sense for the two-time Big Ten Quarterback of the Year.
"I like Braxton Miller, but I think he’s a work in progress. Especially for being a bigger name player, I think a lot of people expected he would be an early draft pick when that’s probably not really the case. I think I said at the beginning of the year that he would be a late-round pick for me as a guy who you would really have to invest some time into to develop," Matt Miller said. "He needs a to be somewhere where he could step in and play right away."
Of course, finding such place is easier said than done at this point of the year, with other programs' quarterback and coach situations still unsettled for 2015. One intriguing option, however, could be at Duke, where senior quarterback Anthony Boone is currently running David Cutcliffe's proven pro-style system.
That is merely speculation at this point, although Matt Miller mentioned that leaving Meyer's spread offense could ultimately be beneficial for Braxton as pro prospect. While Meyer begs to differ, the NFL analyst said that the short pro career of former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow has left questions about the sustainability of Meyer's quarterbacks in the NFL, which could follow Miller.
"Alex Smith is really the only productive quarterback out of that offense so far," Matt Miller said of the current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, who Meyer coached at Utah. "It would be better for Braxton Miller to get into a system that’s going to coach him up as more of a passer and less of an athlete. The big problem is that there’s only so much work you can do in one offseason."
That is why it's also not out of the realm of possibility that Miller rethinks his return to the college ranks and enters the 2015 draft. Given his injury status, that scenario obviously raises some questions of its own, but he has proved enough in his college career thus far to catch the eye of NFL talent evaluators.
"He was productive enough, he’s athletic enough that someone would take a chance on him," Matt Miller said. "It would be a surprise if he wasn’t drafted. I think there would have to be something there with the medical. One thing that kind of works for him is that it’s not a super deep quarterback class. Unless [underclassmen] Everett Golson, Connor Cook and Dak Prescott all come out, it’s going to be a pretty weak group of quarterbacks. That might actually help him."
With the success that former Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is currently enjoying as a running back with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the analyst Miller also wouldn't rule out a potential position change for the Ohio State quarterback. Miller could convert to running back or wide receiver with either a return to the Buckeyes or jump to the pros, only furthering the future options of the Huber Heights, Ohio, native.
"I think that’s probably a better spot for him just based on his athleticism, not asking him to develop as a senior who’s coming off of two shoulder injuries," Matt Miller said. "When you look at the fact that this is a guy who has been hurt and it’s a throwing shoulder, I think that’s where you start getting into, ‘Would he be better at running back?’"
While Miller's future may be uncertain, his possibilities appear to be almost limitless. What position he'll be playing, where at and when all seem to be up in the air at this point, but it's clear that certain conversations in Columbus are going to have to take place sometime in the future.
And what that means for Miller—and the Buckeyes—is anybody's guess.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.