Two quarterbacks who helped lead Ohio State to the national championship last year are in the mix. Another would likely be taking snaps behind center but instead appears set to learn a different position while his banged-up body continues to recover. All have written their names in ink both in the records books and Ohio State’s storied annals.
It will be the discussion of camp, the discussion of college football nation, a rabid, 24/7 news cycle that discusses, tweets and debates its way through perhaps the most fanatical sport in our fanatic nation.
It’s been called unprecedented. It’s been called more a blessing than a curse. And it’s finally here, with Ohio State reporting today and fall camp set to begin tomorrow.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen three guys at one position where you have to pick one,” Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days. “I’ve never been in that situation. I’ve been in a place where you play three or four receivers at a time and you have five good ones, you play them all. Quarterbacks, I’ve never been in one like this.”
There are some comparable situations in Meyer’s life, but as the coach said, this one is unique. Sure, he rotated Andy Sahm and Josh Harris when he first got to Bowling Green. Yes, he massaged Chris Leak and sidekick Tim Tebow into a national championship squad at Florida. As his Gators career came to a close, he tried to use some combination of John Brantley, Jordan Reed and Trey Burton to rouse a struggling offense.
But this is different. There’s J.T. Barrett, who set a Big Ten record for touchdowns and placed fifth in the Heisman voting, all while developing a reputation as for consistency and leadership. There’s Cardale Jones, the force of nature whose magnetic personality and will to win helped Ohio State complete the national championship journey last year. And there’s even Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year who Meyer doesn’t seem quite ready to give up on as a quarterback despite a shoulder and a brain telling him wide receiver is the place to be right now.
As Meyer has said, having multiple good quarterbacks is a lot better problem than having all bad ones. Coaches from around the country are jealous of the Buckeyes’ riches under center, but to say there what will happen when Sept. 7 comes and one guy isn’t playing? How will he react? How will the team react? And what will happen among the Buckeyes’ voracious fan base if one quarterback struggles – or, worse yet, the team loses a game?
It’s a minefield that must be traversed, a unique challenge to conquer in every way. Meyer has said he won’t announce a starter until the team takes the field in Blacksburg, and he has outlined what he feels is the road the Buckeyes will travel to get there.
Now, the steps begin.
“(Everything in the past and future) will be evaluated, and I made an error when I spoke last spring when I said it can’t be a gut instinct. It has to be both. I was on the sideline with those kids and Tim Beck was not but Ed Warinner was. How they performed last year and how they performed in the summer, and then we’re going to chart everything throughout training camp.
“It has to be an accumulation of all that information, and we’ll make a decision.”
Every time you turned around last year, it seemed like Barrett had posted 300 yards of offense and three touchdowns. A redshirt freshman but wise beyond his years, Barrett took over as OSU’s starter 12 days before the opener vs. Navy, took his lumps vs. Virginia Tech and then immediately became a championship-caliber quarterback.
By the end of the year, in 12 games leading up to his broken fibula vs. Michigan, he completed 64.6 percent of his passes, threw 34 touchdowns and ran for 11 more while averaging more than 314 yards per game.
More than that, his steady personality and performance allowed a young team to jell around him. This summer, he’s been even better in that regard, putting in the work to help the Buckeyes keep getting better.
“You can see it in the leadership,” Meyer said in Chicago. “For me to say we took him in high school because we knew this – I had no idea (he was that good of a leader). Trent Dilfer, who worked with him at the Elite 11, I talk to him quite often and he made a comment to me about his leadership – ‘This is exactly what we needed.’ He’s off the charts. I have some leadership training in the summer and he’s off the charts.”
Barrett doesn’t have the arm of Jones or the feet of Miller, but he showed a year ago he was good enough in each of those realms to win and excel. And off the field, no one seems to bring as much to the table as Barrett.
“He’s got the personality to where people want to rally around him,” offensive lineman Taylor Decker said. “You want to follow him. He just has poise about him where he’s a natural. It’s an intangible thing – not everybody has it, but he does. He’s fortunate to have that, especially in the position he plays because the quarterback is the face of your program whether you like it or not, and he handles that spotlight and he handles that pressure amazingly. If you see one of the leaders of your team be able to do that, it can calm you down and give you confidence. That’s invaluable for sure.
If Barrett is a coach’s dream, Jones might be a fan’s dream. If you’re a college football supporter or a Buckeye fan, you can’t help but enjoy the attitude Jones brings to the game.
He’s clearly enjoying himself, and who in his position wouldn’t? His offseason was tour de force of fun, from his Ronda Rousey courtship to May Fools Day to his politicking to get the chance to throw out the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians game.
But beneath the guy having fun is a hard worker who has spoken just as much this offseason as time in the weight room as time at the ESPYs.
“We've been back to work,” he said. “I enjoyed the two or three weeks after the national championship game and then it was back to business. We all have a goal as individual players to produce and living on cloud nine too long is dangerous. Yeah, you enjoy it, but you don't let it take away from the work you have to do to prepare for next year.”
That fits with what his teammates have been saying, those who have noted that yes, Jones has been having a blast this summer, but he’s also been doing his part off the field as well.
“I think everybody knows he has a goofy personality,” Decker said. “He’s a goofball. He loves to make jokes, he’s a really witty guy, and I think the beginning of that maturation process came with him losing that starting job. He finally realized like, ‘Man, I have to get it together. I have to be more responsible. I have to take my preparation seriously,’ and I think throughout the season he just grew and grew and grew being in that backup role and just became a mature kid. Obviously he’s still having fun. He’s still goofy, but when he steps in, he’s able to flip the switch and be serious.”
On the field, the stats – a 61.3-percent completion mark, five touchdowns, two picks, 90 rushing yards and a rushing TD in three games – in the playoff don’t quite stand out, but they don’t tell the whole story. There were the picturesque deep balls to Devin Smith that buried Wisconsin, the poise to lead the Buckeyes back vs. Alabama and the sheer will to run his 6-5, 250-pound frame through players in each playoff game to earn the Buckeyes the title.
Simply put, right now, Miller looks to be a receiver.
He told SI’s Pete Thamel in July that his shoulder was two months away from being ready for the rigors of being a quarterback, and both Urban Meyer and receivers coach Zach Smith have made comments that Miller has been working out at the “H” in preparations for the season.
But at the same time, Meyer doesn’t seem quite ready to give up on the thought that Miller can throw the ball in 2015, noting that while the Plan B of him being a receiver has been activated, Plan A hasn’t been thrown away, either.
“I think (it’s still on the table that he could play QB some),” Meyer said in Chicago. “We haven’t talked much about that. It’s been focused at wide receiver with me, and the QB stuff, we’re not there. They’re throwing on their own.”
As for whether Miller might have to pick a certain spot at some point and stuck with it, Meyer said, “We’ll know a week into (camp). It might be in a week, we say you’re full-time, or we might say if depending on someone gets hurt, you have two broken chin straps, he’s throwing the ball for us. Think about that. But we’ll know more as we get closer.”
At this point, Ohio State fans know very well what Miller brings to the table. He’s improved as a passer each season, topping out in 2013 by completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 24 TDs and seven interceptions while posting his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, and his athletic gifts are prodigious.
So Now What?
Meyer has spoken numerous times about the statistical analysis the Buckeyes will do to choose the starter. He’s said that has to happen – he simply can’t pick a player who hasn’t earned the job and keep the team happy.
But yet he also points to that gut feeling he’ll be looking to have, and when he was asked to define that, he had a detailed answer.
“That’s where I rely on my coaches and my strength coach,” Meyer said. “He’s seen them, we call them the Harley Davidson workouts. We’re into the human spirit, we’re into the toughness, we’re into the leadership more than any other program in America. We’ve all witnessed these kids in these tough – anyone can play quarterback when you’re better than the team you’re playing and you’re surrounded by incredible skill. Creating that tough situation and how they respond, it’s a gut feeling, but it’s also communication of people when they witnessed those guys in that situation.
“That’s what I mean by gut feeling. I’ve already seen those kids. I’ve seen Cardale Jones on fourth down-and-1 against Oregon launch himself as he’s looking at the first down marker. That’s burned in my brain. I’ve seen that. I’ve also seen J.T. Barrett with a second-degree MCL sprain at Penn State look at me and say, ‘I’m not coming out of the game.’ I’ve seen Braxton have incredible toughness, fight through pain and adversity. Those are all embedded, then you just have to make the decision.”
If all have certain intangibles and tangibles, if all are capable of leading the Buckeyes to where they want to go, then is this a problem? After all, an offseason statistical model projected any of them were expected to lead the Buckeyes to more than 40 points per game.
There’s no bad answer, but having to have an answer is the issue. The human side will always make some wonder if the choice is right, if the Buckeyes would be better served with another option behind center. The potential is there, if things aren’t handled correctly, for what looks good on paper to crumble under the pressure and the lights.
It’s unlike anything Urban Meyer and his players have seen. And, starting tomorrow, the theory will be turned into testimony on the practice field.
“I think it’s going to be a great battle, and we’re all curious,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “I know one thing is that the guy who wins the job is going to go out there and do a great job. He’s going to lead the team, and he’s going to lead the offense. The guy who ends up being the backup is going to push the starter and also be a leader. He’s going to come to work every day, and so those are things we look forward to.”