Buckeyes banking on J.T. Barrett to lead them in 2016
Buckeyes banking on J.T. Barrett to lead them in 2016
CHICAGO — Remember Ohio State’s never-ending quarterback controversy a year ago? The one that started before the Buckeyes even completed their 2014 national championship run and continued through the first two-thirds of the ’15 regular season?
Many believed at the time that Urban Meyer got it wrong when he initially chose Cardale Jones over J.T. Barrett to start the season. Barrett, who by his own admission had a poor fall camp, was not among them.
“Cardale at the time was playing better than me,” Barrett recalled at this week’s Big Ten Media Days. “He deserved to start.”
Nearly a year later, the fourth-year junior enters Ohio State’s preseason as not only its undisputed starter but also the most familiar face by far on a roster gutted by early NFL defections. “It’s his team,” Meyer said. “He runs the show.”
Looking back, though, it’s been quite the two-year roller coaster for the Wichita Falls, Texas native.
As a redshirt freshman unexpectedly promoted to starter following standout Braxton Miller’s preseason shoulder injury, Barrett racked up 3,772 total yards and 45 combined touchdowns while guiding the Buckeyes to the Big Ten title game. But after breaking his ankle against Michigan, the top-five Heisman finisher could only watch from the sideline as unheralded replacement Jones led Ohio State to the last three wins of a national championship season.
After missing subsequent spring practices, Barrett returned in August, but he was not himself. “I was thinking too much,” he said. “It slowed me down.” After playing sparingly in relief of an often-struggling Jones the first seven games, Barrett finally regained the starting job for a late October game at Rutgers, only to get suspended a week later for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.
Two games after that, 10-0 Ohio State suffered its season-crushing defeat to Michigan State. At which point Meyer shuffled his play-callers. At which point Barrett finally returned to 2014 form, shredding Michigan and, in the Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame.
“He was at full force those two games,” Meyer said. “I see him going back to being J.T. like he was in the middle of his freshman year. He’s going to have a great fall.”
What would be nice is if he finally has some fun.
Listening to the quarterback recount some of his career experiences Tuesday was a bit of a downer. Whereas Jones became widely known for his free-spirited, sometimes reckless personality, Barrett is an introvert who, by his own admission, often “thinks too much.” The burden of responsibility that comes with being the Ohio State quarterback seems to weigh on him.
“I feel like you don’t really enjoy it until the work is over,” he said. “You’re talking about sometime in January.”
What about his seemingly euphoric ride as a redshirt freshman? “It was a relief when we won,” Barrett said. “I was just like, ‘Phew, I was nervous about that one.'”
And from the sounds of it, many of the 2015 Buckeyes of Bosa/Elliott/Lee et al., felt bogged down by the expectation that they would become an all-time great team.
“We had so many great players, we knew there was so much we could have done,” Barrett said. “There were times where we won a game and we didn’t enjoy it.”
For once, expectations are at least slightly tempered around Columbus, what with the Buckeyes having to replace 12 NFL draft picks. Barrett and center Pat Elflein are the lone remaining starters from that ’14 national championship team. Ohio State plays what Meyer calls “the toughest road schedule in college football,” with games at Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State.
“Do you want us to tell the fans, ‘Hey, we lost some guys so don’t worry about the Big Ten championship. Sorry,'” Barrett said. “That’s not fair to them.”
It will be interesting to watch how Barrett’s role in the offense evolves given the mass turnover on his surrounding depth chart.
In the past he was very much a de facto point guard, making sure all of the Buckeyes’ various playmakers — Ezekiel Elliott, Curtis Samuel, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall — got their touches. But he also could do no shortage of damage with his own feet, running 19 times for 139 yards in last year’s Michigan game and 23 times for 96 yards in the bowl game.
And this year, he may need to do it all.
Talent-wise, Ohio State is fully expected to reload at the skill positions, but the next wave — redshirt freshman tailback Mike Weber, redshirt freshman receiver Torrance Gibson, sophomore receiver Noah Brown — lack experience. Meyer even expects a true freshman, Michael Jordan (yes, that’s his name), to be the starting right guard.
If the 2016 Buckeyes get to Indianapolis, Barrett may have to run 20-25 times a game, a la predecessor Miller circa 2012. He’ll also need to improve his accuracy after slipping from 64.6 percent to 63.3 percent completions last season.
Most of all, the soft-spoken, introspective thinker must become the Buckeyes’ most vocal leader.
“He’s very humble, he’s very quiet around the team, but he’s a leader behind the scenes,” Meyer said. “He’s a guy who when he speaks, 90 heads are going to turn around and listen to what he has to say.”
Barrett had plenty to say to reporters this week, though he found his place in that scene to be more than a little surreal.
“I’m just a little kid from Wichita Falls, Texas, trying to make the Buckeyes better,” he said.