I have thought about that ad a few times this spring and summer a few times as I’ve heard some people mention the fact that with Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones on the Ohio State roster – three quarterbacks who have two top-five Heisman finishes and a national championship between them – the Buckeyes could have three quarterbacks on the field at the same time.
My immediate thought?
Not having have three quarterbacks on the field at the same time? Brilliant!
It’s not that I don’t think there are some packages in which something like that could happen. It’s just that you’re not going to see a ton of it because, well, it’s difficult to make something like that work.
Think about it. Football for the past 50 years has basically been based around a familiar pattern – a quarterback takes the snap, the line protects and the QB then distributes the ball to the playmakers. It’s developed this way for a variety of reasons but one major one is that it works – and it works really well for Meyer, who has made his quarterbacks into stars and run one of the most efficient and devastating offenses in college football history during his 13-year head coaching tenure.
As it stands now, with offenses now being so quarterback-centric, the position has become very specialized, especially when it comes to the throwing game, where defenses are the highest level are optimized to be as confusing to diagnose as college-level calculus.
There’s also the football truth about the math of the sport that has become clear over the past decade or so – anyone who doesn’t provide a threat to the defense (i.e., a quarterback who has handed the ball off and taken himself out of the play without the threat of an option run) is essentially a wasted player.
One thing that must be taken into account, then, is that if you’re going to have a second quarterback on the field – whether for a package or a particular trick play – that person has to, well, be useful. It can’t just be someone who is lines up at a wide receiver spot but offers little versatility on a given play or that person is just wasted.
“You have to decide, are we better running plays with a second quarterback on the field or are we better putting our third base receiver on the field?” said Alex Kirby, a football schematics writer who recently released a book diagramming each play from Ohio State’s national title game win.
“That might change from play to play, but there’s so many things that go against that idea unless Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett or Braxton Miller have just amazing football playing skills. Otherwise, you’re really losing. You’re taking a loss in terms of the football ability on the field every play you’re out there.”
Yet inside of Kirby’s answer might be the key to how Ohio State might choose to attack defenses with more than one quarterback on the field.
So What Could Work?
Let’s be frank – there’s no world in which the Buckeyes will have a base set with multiple quarterbacks on the field. The Meyer offense works too well – and the Buckeyes have too many playmakers at receiver, wideout, “H” and tight end – to make this more than a gimmick.
But Meyer has shown an interest in having multiple people with throwing skills on the field before at OSU. In 2013, he told reporters he had looked into systems that had both Miller and Kenny Guiton on the field at one time, though it never came to fruition. During spring, he was asked about using a multiple-QB system and referenced when he played both Chris Leak and Tim Tebow in 2006 at Florida (though generally not on the same plays), mentioning he has thought a little bit about how he could do something similar this year.
The most telling quote about Meyer’s mind-set, though, is one he’s said a few times in passing. Meyer knows a lot about offensive football, and he has mentioned that if it weren’t for appearances, he’d consider running the single wing, the hard-to-stop, hard-to-follow offensive approach of days gone by in which multiple backs were trusted to throw passes on the rare occasions that happened.
The single-wing certainly wasn’t known as a passing offense, though it is in many ways the inspiration for shotgun and spread offenses that have come to dominate the current day. But the ethos of it was that, using misdirection and versatile players, teams could move the ball down the field with ruthless efficiency.
That sounds a lot like Meyer's approach in some ways, and the truth is he has the pieces to make something work – especially if that piece is Braxton Miller.
The health of Miller’s shoulder come August still must be figured out, but if you’re looking for someone with the athleticism to line up somewhere on the field other than behind center but also the quarterback skills to be trusted to throw the ball, that’s the guy.
Lining up in the slot or the backfield, Miller can be the kind of player who can be close enough to center that he can still be part of a play from the beginning but who also is athletic enough to take a run-pass option to a lethal level.
Jones’ bullish figure – at 6-5, 250, he made it a habit of steamrolling opponents including an Oregon defensive tackle in the title game – also adds some versatility as Jones could be trusted to do some of the same jobs given to Tebow in his limited time as a changeup quarterback in 2006.
No matter what happens, though, anything too off-the-wall will likely be part of a package that starts vanilla and then goes from there.
“You throw two guys out there for a play and you just see how the defense reacts,” Kirby said. “If you feel like you have an advantage, maybe two or three plays later you put the same package out there to get the same advantage. You don’t want until the next drive – you don’t give them time to talk about it on the sideline between drives. If you think you have an advantage, you take advantage now.”
Has Anyone Done This Recently?
If the Buckeyes are going to do anything like a one-off, big-hitting type of play, something like a double pass would be on the table.
We’ve certainly seen this before – the double pass is a staple of football trickeration – and most often it happens when a team has a wideout or back who used to play QB take a lateral and then look downfield. Think New England’s Julian Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State, throwing a TD during the 2015 NFL playoffs, and it’s certainly not hard to see how, say, Miller could pull off the following toss.
In the realm of having two quarterbacks on the field as more of a deeper package, there are a couple of examples of teams in recent college history, including Louisiana-Monroe during the 2012 season.
The Warhawks would have both Kolton Browning and Cody Wells on the field at the same time. While Browning was the starter, racking up 29 touchdowns and completing 63.8 percent of his passes, Wells was an effective complement who completed 64.1 percent of his passes.
The two used different hands to throw the football, allowing Monroe to roll the two in their preferred direction off of read-option plays for passes to open receivers, as seen below. The goal is to catch the defense in a way that leaves a defender in a conundrum as far as deciding whether to cover a receiver or attack the ball-carrying QB.
Looking for an example of three quarterbacks on the field at once? Well, it took someone smart to figure out how to do it, and that team was Princeton. In the video below, the Tigers use a variety of formations to keep Cornell off balance – including one with split offensive lines.
In other clips, the Tigers use the same kind of read-option action as Monroe to get a quarterback on the run to his strong side, while other plays look more like the old T-formation used by Woody Hayes in the 1950s. The last play, the commentators astutely point out, is a take on the fumblerooski with a quarterback taking the snap and hiding behind the line before busting through.
But even this package has some of the drawbacks as noted before, particularly that the quarterbacks in the game lose their effectiveness when asked to do non-quarterback things. The sequence ends on a fumble by a quarterback running the football; though that was more because of a bad call than anything else, it does show the concern of putting someone into a position in which they are not comfortable during game action.
In the end, there are definitely options on the table for the Buckeyes when it comes to getting parts of the three-headed monster at quarterback involved in the action in more ways than one. I just wouldn’t expect it as anything more than a passing fad.