COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a country that loves quarterbacks, loathes quarterbacks, talks quarterbacks, pines away for quarterbacks and tends to buy products endorsed by quarterbacks, here’s the greatest one-team quarterback question in the history of college football: Miller, Barrett or Jones?
That very question sure can pepper a spring break, even for a linebacker.
“I was back home at my high school, and I couldn’t tell you how many people asked, ‘Who’s gonna be the starting quarterback?’ ” said Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry, a rising senior team leader from Galena near Columbus. “I go to the local Kroger and run into somebody. ‘Who’s gonna be the starting quarterback?’ That’s all you hear. ‘Who’s gonna be the starting quarterback?’
“And so, I don’t know. Nobody knows. It’s really early in the game and we’ve got only one guy who is fully healthy that played last year, so it’s hard to tell right now. All I know is we’ve got a really good group of guys, guys who love to compete and are gonna be happy for whoever wins the job.”
By the end of an astonishing season that saw one team suffer two major quarterback injuries yet win a national championship with a third, three names in one town had grown famous. All Columbus and beyond already knew of Braxton Miller from his three seasons with 36 games and 52 touchdown passes (against 17 interceptions), two 1,000-yard rushing seasons and an unbeaten season in 2012. All Columbus and beyond got to know J.T. Barrett when he replaced the injured Miller last August with his 12 games and 34 touchdown passes (against 10 interceptions), his 2,834 passing yards and his quick competence and his exhilarating mastery in the test at Michigan State.
All Columbus and beyond then got to know Cardale Jones after he replaced the injured Barrett at the urgent juncture of early December and piloted Ohio State through three games with 742 passing yards and five touchdown passes (against two interceptions) for a team that scored 143 points.
Those games happened to be the Big Ten Championship Game, the Sugar Bowl national semifinal and the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
By the time the confetti fell in January, this trio of brio promised one giant puzzle come late summer, and that puzzle is on its way, right after Barrett’s ankle and Miller’s shoulder finish healing, probably in that order.
“It is the number-one question people ask me when they find out what I do for a living,” Columbus radio host Jonathan Smith said. “‘Who is going to be the quarterback?’ And they usually tell me their answer before I can respond.”
Ohio State will enter one lush frontier where no team in memory has gone. Fortunately for all the curious sorts in the Galena Kroger and elsewhere, Ohio State also employs a head coach who has navigated frontiers — Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, Columbus — with rare expertise.
“It’s all positive,” Urban Meyer said in a spring practice press conference on Tuesday. “If you watch the three of them, they’re always talking. Like at practice, I happened to turn around and Braxton and J.T., they’re talking about football, and then I saw Braxton walk up and hit Cardale, you know, tap him, ‘Nice job,’ and I just see that. And that’s not common. That’s not common. Everything’s positive. Talent. Quality people. Value to the program. Investment in the program. Check, check, check, check, check.
“Negative: Two people are gonna have to watch. You know, it’s not like receiver, you can put three of them out there, so that’s the only thing that’s starting to eat away at me a little bit. You know, it didn’t for a while, because you’re just so busy, but now that I’m seeing what I’m seeing, and I have such great respect for all three guys.”
The tenor of Ohio State’s turn as defending champion, then, figures to hinge on the personal natures of two Ohioans (Jones, Miller) and one Texan (Barrett), of two 22-year-olds (Jones, Miller) and one 20-year-old (Barrett), of one man with one remaining year of eligibility (Miller), one with two (Jones) and one with three (Barrett). A team unusually collaborative in 2014 might have to be even more unusually collaborative in 2015. Their dispositions will matter.
“Cardale is the class clown,” Perry said. “He’s the boisterous, loud, outgoing, funny guy. Just always joking around. I don’t think there’s a serious bone in his body until it’s time to come out here and practice, and then on game day. But outside of that, nothing serious about that guy. And that’s what you enjoy, because he is one of those guys where if you’re struggling a little bit, or you’re having a rough time, you just go hang out with him for a few minutes, and it’s all smiles, and you’re back down to earth.”
And then to Barrett.
“J.T., I call him ‘Average Joe,’ because he is just an average guy,” Perry said. “Everything about him. His demeanor says ‘leader’ but it says, ‘I’m just a guy like everybody else.’ And we really appreciate that out of him because he brings all that to the table: the leadership, the seriousness, the team-first mentality, just because of how his personality is.”
And then to the dean of them, Miller.
“And then you talk about Braxton, he’s a superstar, as it were, just because of all he’s done for Ohio State and how he came onto the scene as a freshman” in 2011, Perry said. “All the electric plays he makes. But he’s a quiet guy outside of these walls. He doesn’t like to spend a ton of time around people because of, I guess, the whole superstar thing. But when he gets in here, he’s another guy where you just enjoy spending time around him, because he really cares about his brothers, he truly cares about the team. He smiles and jokes but he’s also serious at times, too, so he’s a good mix. But a lot of times outside the building, he’s just all about the team and to himself. He doesn’t do all the other stuff. … He keeps a small circle — teammates, close friends, family, but outside of that, there’s not a ton of other people that he likes to keep around.”
In a bruising sport, the most-eyeballed team might double as a question of love. Three proven quarterbacks man one roster, and one rising senior linebacker may have made a telltale statement. “They love each other,” Perry said.