The opening week of the college football season provided Ohio State’s Braxton Miller the opportunity to demonstrate his growth as a passer. Miller flashed needed improvements, but Khalil Mack’s coming-out party interrupted the opening of Miller’s Heisman campaign. Mack was nearly unblockable and perhaps single-handedly kept his under-matched Buffalo team in the game, cementing his status as a potential first round NFL draft pick. Below I analyze Miller and Mack’s growth as players, and what each must improve to succeed at the next level.
Miller was one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football last season in leading Ohio State to a 12-0 record. Miller’s primarily threatened defenses as a runner in Urban Meyer’s spread offense, demonstrating that he is one of the best ball carriers at any position in college football. Miller is not only fast, but his quick feet permit him to juke defenders in the hole and run like a tailback. Meyer utilized Miller’s running ability not only on read plays like zone read and inverted veer/power read that are being increasingly utilized in the NFL by the likes of Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, but also on designed quarterback runs where Miller effectively became a single-wing tailback.
As a passer, however, Miller’s 2012 was inconsistent. Miller has the benefit of playing in an NFL-style passing offense. Miller may operate from the shotgun, but Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman utilize a drop-back, conceptual passing game that attacks particular coverage schemes. Miller thus has the opportunity to hone his craft using passing plays that NFL offenses regularly employ.
But the sophomore Miller was not able to fully capitalize on that scheme. He has the requisite arm strength and other tools, but was erratic in his progressions and accuracy.
Miller’s goal this offseason was to improve his mechanics and comfort in the pocket. This included working with private quarterback’s coach George Whitfield.
Miller’s opening performance against Buffalo demonstrates that his off-season work has paid off. Miller’s footwork and arm angle are improved. Specifically, Miller’s elbow is higher in his throwing motion. This allows him to deliver a tighter spiral with better timing.
Miller also demonstrated on Saturday an improved ability to read his progressions and throw to his receivers in rhythm. In the play below, Miller stepped into his throw and delivered a strike where only his receiver can catch the football.
Miller must continue to work on his pocket presence, however. He can become jittery in the pocket and lose his timing with receivers. This includes the paradoxical fact that, as great of an athlete as Miller is, he is a poor scrambler. Meyer has made the point that Miller tends to get lead feet in the pocket, rather than using his gifts to create downfield opportunities or gain yards running when the defense presents the opportunity.
While Miller is only 6’3’’, he has a strong arm and can make every throw. Miller’s improved mechanics after an off-season of work demonstrate his receptiveness to coaching and ability to improve. If he can continue to improve his pocket presence, Miller’s dynamism as a runner provides him with a high upside.
The Mack Cometh
Miller’s jitteriness in the pocket against Buffalo was not unwarranted, however, because Khalil Mack was a frequent presence in the Ohio State backfield. Mack operates as an outside linebacker in Buffalo’s 3-4 scheme. The Bulls play their defensive ends inside the offensive tackles, meaning that Mack has wide gap control responsibility and must maintain contain. Buffalo requires Mack to be versatile, dropping Mack into coverage in their inverted cover-2 scheme as well as using him to rush the passer.
Against Ohio State it was rushing the passer where Mack principally made his presence felt, displaying a unique combination of size and strength. He was able to use his quickness to get underneath an offensive lineman’s pads and then use his strength to drive that lineman into the backfield.
For instance, Mack several times bested Ohio State’s left tackle Jack Mewhort. Mewhort is generally projected as an early to mid-round draft prospect, providing a good test. Mack was able to get into Mewhort before Mewhort could get his arms extended, allowing him to drive Mewhort backwards. Once Mewhort prepared for the power move, Mack used his quickness and a swim move to beat Mewhort around the corner.
Against the run, Mack controlled the blocker, maintained outside leverage and reset the line of scrimmage. Mack was able to contain Ohio State’s outside run game, forcing runners inside to his teammates. Mack then demonstrated his athleticism with an amazing play where he evaded a cut block, leapt to intercept a jailbreak screen from Miller, and outran Miller to the end zone.
Mack’s skill set translates well to the NFL. He has the pass rushing ability to play as an outside linebacker to the weak side. But he is strong enough that he can line up over tight ends as a Sam linebacker to maintain wide side contain.
Mack only began playing football his senior year of high school and is still raw. He lacks consistent pass moves beyond using his speed and power. But this demonstrates his upside. He also can be a step slow in diagnosing run plays and flowing to the football, demonstrating a need for increased reps to improve recognition.
Nonetheless, in a game where his teammates were largely overmatched, Mack was able to consistently generate negative plays. He was able to stall the Ohio State offense several times and produced an impressive stat line with nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown.
Going in to the contest Mack was projected by some as a late first to second round pick. Mack’s impressive performance against Ohio State likely moved him up scout draft boards. As Meyer stated following Mack’s performance against his Buckeyes, “his stock in the draft just went up a little bit after playing against us." If Mack continues this level of performance he can comfortably entrench himself as a first round selection.