It seemed like an innocuous enough question at the time.
With Cardale Jones seated at a table in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center meeting with local and national media Thursday, someone asked Jones about how he had only a week to get ready to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback in the Big Ten Championship Game vs. Wisconsin.
Jones then interrupted the questioner. Yes, it was true that he became the starter just the Saturday before that game when J.T. Barrett suffered a broken bone in his right ankle vs. Michigan, but that didn’t mean the sophomore from Cleveland Glenville had started preparing for his chance seven days before the title game.
“No, you're wrong about that,” Jones said. “I've been getting ready for that game ever since I've been here. That's how we practice around here; you've always got to be ready.”
Was he ever ready for that start in Indianapolis. Fans likely don’t have to be reminded how calm, cool and collected Jones was in his first career start, but a few weeks later, the numbers are still almost jaw-dropping.
Known mostly as a running quarterback in previous appearances as a backup for the Scarlet and Gray, Jones instead did his damage through the air – he went 12 of 17 for 257 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. All three of his scores were deep balls of 39, 44 and 42 yards to Devin Smith, and Jones never came close to throwing an interception. His stats likely could have been more impressive, but there wasn’t much reason to keep pushing the pace as OSU held a 45-0 lead early in the third quarter.
With that, Jones went from backup to legend. Fans had known of his skills for a while – he’s been known as a guy with a long stride, good running ability and a cannon for an arm – but no one knew what he could on the big stage.
Now they do.
“Cardale’s the freaking man on campus,” his roommate, Tyvis Powell, said in his trademark jovial fashion. “I’m just that guy now that stands with him. I just hope that when he gets big town he doesn’t forget about me.”
Jones said there isn’t much chance of that.
“The phone rings a bit more,” he admitted. “It got a little better being around my teammates and being more (relaxed) and knowing they have more confidence in me. I’m still the same guy. That’s not going to stop me from preparing for his next game.”
That preparation was one of the keys of the Wisconsin performance, to hear pretty much everyone tell it. Jones had thrown a total of 17 passes in his career before the game but still put together a standout performance in the drubbing of the No. 13 Badgers, and Powell said Jones wasn’t around the house much in the week leading up to the game.
“He’s more focused than he ever was,” Powell said. “Usually, Cardale is a jokey-joke type of person, he really doesn’t take too many things too seriously. Basically he would come to practice, do his thing and get in and get out. Now that everybody is depending on him to be the person to make the throws and run the offense he’s more into watching film, he spends extra time here at the Woody, he throws the ball more when he doesn’t even have to. I would just say that his focus is totally changed and that’s the No. 1 thing I can say.”
That has been noticed by the coaching staff as well, which arrived before the 2012 season just like Jones, who was originally in the 2011 class out of Cleveland Glenville before a year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia.
“It's been tremendous,” co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. “It's been fun to watch. He's talented and he's confident right now. You can see him growing in that role and every day that's where Tom (Herman) challenges him to continue to grow as a leader and to take charge, set the tone.
“Quarterbacks are judged by 'Can they get their team down there and get them in the end zone?' That's how you evaluate the quarterback is moving a club down the field, controlling the tempo of the game and scoring points. That's what ultimately he's asked to do and then we have to give him opportunities to do that within his skill set.”
Doing all of those things has made Jones into someone his coaches, teammates and Buckeye fans feel can lead them to a championship this month. Despite all the recent attention, Jones knows that remains the No. 1 goal.
“Basically knowing that it's not over,” he said when asked how he stays grounded. “It's not how well I've played in a game, it's how well we've played as a team and how our offense, defense and kicking game came together. So just basically, letting myself know it's not over. The Big Ten, that's one of our goals around here. But we're chasing a national championship now.”