Monday, September 26, 2011

MONDAY QUARTERBACKING: FICKELL NOW A HEAD COACH, NOT ASSISTANT

Ohio State interim head coach Luke Fickell leading his team onto the field Saturday against Colorado at Ohio Stadium. (The Buckeye Times/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell)
COLUMBUS — If Luke Fickell is to remove the interim tag from his office letterhead at the end of this season, the decision to go all-in with true freshman quarterback Braxton Miller will be the moment we consider the turning point of his coaching career at Ohio State.

After the first three games of the season, it appeared to this writer that the head coaching role was too big for the longtime defensive assistant. Although I believed Fickell was a fine football coach from an X's and O's standpoint, his inability to make difficult decisions was concerning, to say the least. I mean, that's the main role of a head coach, right? You know, making decisions, and if need be, overruling assistants — even if they have been there longer and were your superiors prior to you becoming the head man.

Sure, when you analyze it, who could really blame him for being a bit indecisive. This isn't your run-of-the-mill job after all. This isn't cutting your teeth as a head coach at Akron or Bowling Green or Ohio Northern. No, this is THE Ohio State University, where losses are treated like leprosy. Shoot, close victories will have local radio talk show hosts calling for your neck.

But when you consider the adversity the team has gone through in the months prior to Fickell getting the job, losing their popular, national championship-winning head coach of 10 years in Jim Tressel, as well as their three-year starting quarterback and two-time BCS bowl game MVP Terrelle Pryor — and several other veteran players for various suspensions — the pressure the new boss must've been feeling coming in had to make the sea floor of the Marianas Trench feel like being wrapped up in a Snuggie.

Figuratively speaking, most coaches jump off five-foot platforms before skydiving. Fickell essentially jumped from a 747, traveling 500 mph at 35,000 feet. Not much room for error. One false move and you're a memory.

No matter how talented a freshman is, when you have basically one chance to keep your employment, putting it in the hands of an 18-year old with zero collegiate experience is much easier said than done. But that's what great coaches do. They make tough decisions, knowing that it could be a fatal one.

Sure, most fans were calling for Miller to start, but it wasn't their jobs that were on the line. If he would've inserted Miller and lost, they would be calling for the next player in line ... or worse, the next coach.

Nonetheless, Fickell made the call. Yes, there were some ups and downs, but if one can't admit that Miller energized a struggling team in major way during the Buckeyes' 37-17 win over Colorado on Saturday, then maybe you should reevaluate your skills of observation.

Fickell sure noticed it. You could tell by his mannerisms after the game Saturday — where his new quarterback led the team on seven scoring drives, dazzled with his athleticism and threw two touchdowns — that he was relieved his big gamble paid off. He decided to throw Miller to the wolves, and was inspired that he returned to the sideline with a fur coat.

"(Miller) gave us a lift, gave us some things we needed offensively, as well as keeping plays alive and things," Fickell said, trying to keep his smile under wraps. "We're not going to throw everything at him right off the bat and say anything more than it's just about the team."

No, coach ... it is just as much or more about you than it is the team. The team needed a head coach. The team needed someone to take charge. They needed someone to inject energy and life into a reeling group of young men.

Fickell did that. He did it by making a big decision and going with it.

That's what head coaches do. That's what Fickell now is ... a head coach.

And just in time for the start of Big Ten play, too.

GET DOWN, BRAXTON! ... Miller rushed the football 17 times in Saturday's win over Colorado, going for 83 yards, most of which came in electrifying fashion.

But one thing that has to be concerning going forward is Miller's inability to avoid big hits on the field.

During one run on Saturday, Miller sprinted right and headed up field as a Colorado defender approached. Instead of ducking out of bounds or hitting the deck, Miller tried to hurdle the defender and ended up flying end-over-end in the air before falling hard to the Ohio Stadium turf below.

He would leave the game unscathed, but did get a little advice from his head coach after the game.

"We are going to have to figure out some self-preservation," Fickell laughed, when talking about his young quarterback.

"I don't slide, I've never slid in my life," Miller smiled. "I think I'm gonna have to practice that now, though."

Buckeyes all-American center said Miller is a fighter, and it will be difficult to take that instinctive nature completely out of him.

"He used his natural instincts," Brewster said. "That's what I did as a freshman and he's doing it now. He got a little banged up out there but tried to get as many yards as possible. He probably could have gotten out of bounds a little more to take a few hits away so he doesn't get banged up, but he's a fighter."