Rob Oller commentary: Urban Meyer's mission is to rally the troops

By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Urban Meyer resembled the glum but positive funeral-home visitor who passes by the casket and thinks, “I’ve seen him look worse.”

The Ohio State football coach appeared unusually subdued yesterday while discussing quarterback Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder injury. Meyer spoke softly and sounded tired. But his quiet delivery belied the elevating content of his message.

Staring into the coffin of a 2014 season without Miller, Meyer sold a scenario of hope, much in the way a church pastor eulogizes even the wickedly heathen with words of praise and approval.

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>> Seriously? You're following all those Twitter accounts but not @buckeyextra? Go ahead and move to Michigan while you're at it.

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“You can speculate, worry, talk about this, read this, do that. ... That’s what people make a living doing. There’s none of that here,” Meyer said. “We lift (Miller) up, with prayer and just as a friend, and a teammate, and you pick up the rifle and go as hard as you possibly can. That’s the mentality here. If there’s anything other than that mentality, that’s when you have problems.”

Maybe over a beer — hey, coach, give me a call — Meyer might change his cheerful outlook, but the man knows his target audience, which consists of his players.

Every coach realizes that his team is watching and listening when he addresses the media, so the message is meant to motivate and convince players — more than sway reporters and fans — that what looks like a corpse really is a Lazarus ready to walk through that door.

“I really, really like our team,” Meyer said after morning practice, even as his demeanor suggested otherwise.

What’s not to like? The Buckeyes boast only one returning starter on the offensive line, a linebacker unit that lost Ryan Shazier (now turning heads with the Pittsburgh Steelers), a secondary that last season couldn’t cover a three-legged dog, and, now, no Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback.

Miller, the two-time Big Ten most valuable player, was the main reason that Associated Press voters ranked Ohio State No. 5 in the preseason. Without him, the Buckeyes don’t crack the top 10. Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman must devise a way to replace the explosiveness that Miller gave them. Gentlemen, time to earn your bonus pay.

And now the QB job probably falls to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who has not completed a pass in a game. Cardale Jones, who is challenging Barrett for the starting job, has completed one pass in two attempts.

Speaking on ESPN radio yesterday, analyst Danny Kanell said of his visit to an Ohio State practice last week, before Miller had resumed participating: “It was one of the worst practices I’ve ever seen, as far as QB play.”

Alarming? Not necessarily. We’re talking practice. But it also lifts the veil on the work Meyer faces.

Not that he sounded overly concerned. Usually blunt in his critique of players, Meyer moved off that brutally honest assessment when discussing Barrett.

“The best quarterbacks are great distributors,” Meyer said. “My initial evaluation of J.T. is that he’s very good at that.”

Meyer is very good at distribution, too, making sure to spread around enough evidence to douse the doubt that accompanies the loss of Miller. Before the question ended — “You’ve been through this before, losing a player for the entire season and ...” — Meyer jumped in with several examples, including quarterback Alex Smith taking over at Utah in 2003 when starter Brett Elliott suffered a broken wrist in the second game.

“He did pretty good,” Meyer deadpanned. Smith went 9-1 the rest of that season and then led the Utes to a 12-0 record in 2004, becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.

Slim chance that Barrett becomes the next Smith, but Meyer is all-in with Miller’s inexperienced replacement.

“It breaks your heart. I mean, it shatters your heart,” Meyer said of what happened to Miller. “But you’ve got to move on. It’s not hard to get the other guy ready, because that’s what we have to do.”

No time for mourning in big-time college football. Life goes on.

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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