This time last year, Ohio State’s quarterback battle was the biggest story in college football.
One candidate led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 regular-season record and a spot in the Big Ten title game, not to mention his fifth-place finish in voting for the Heisman Trophy. The other candidate led the Buckeyes to wins in the conference championship game, the Sugar Bowl and the national championship game, delivering Ohio State its 11th national title in program history.
It was an unenviable decision, and Urban Meyer took forever to actually make it, starting Cardale Jones over the season’s first few games while continuing to play J.T. Barrett. And all the while, the Buckeyes’ offense struggled. Barrett was eventually handed the starting job and put up some big numbers while Ezekiel Elliott carried the offense. But that indecision at the game’s most important position, well it wasn’t what you want on the quest to repeat as national champs.
“I feel like it was a little difficult, but you just try to put yourself in the best position to play. That’s all I tried to do was to focus on what I can control,” Barrett said during Big Ten Media Days. “That was something that coach Meyer tried to do his best as far as me and Cardale and who was going to give Ohio State the best opportunity to win games.”
Even though the Buckeyes only lost one game last season, the quarterback merry-go-round and a comparatively unimpressive offense were the talks of the season — and maybe why it wasn’t back-to-back national titles for Ohio State.
According to Meyer, Barrett had some things working against him that kept him out of the starting role for the season’s first few weeks. This season, there will be no such controversy. Barrett is the guy, without question, and that should be a big help in a year when the Buckeyes are transitioning from an experienced group to a young one.
“He did not have a great training camp last year for whatever reason,” Meyer said. “We had a great conversation, actually drove him to the airport on the way here, talking about that. And there was a lot of distraction with Cardale, with who is going to be playing quarterback. And he was still overcoming a pretty serious injury that took a long time to heal. So he didn't have the spring reps that he needed. He did this year. And I anticipate he'll be as good a quarterback as we've had. It's his show and he knows it and he's prepared.”
Barrett won’t have Elliott to help him out this season — though there are high hopes for Elliott’s successor, Mike Weber — but his numbers from last season and the season before showed he’s more than capable of being one of the best players in the Big Ten. In 2015, Barrett completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 992 yards and 11 touchdowns, rushing 115 times for 682 yards and 11 more touchdowns. Of course Buckeyes fans will be happy to see the same kind of season he had in 2014, when he excelled after being thrust into the starting role after Braxton Miller was injured for the season. That year, Barrett completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns plus 938 rushing yards and 11 additional touchdowns.
Barrett should deliver another sensational season as a redshirt junior, but it’s the offense around him that brings question marks. No one knows what to expect from the youth at almost every other position, be it Weber, inexperienced wideouts or an offensive line that will see a true freshman starter. It makes that comparatively lackluster offensive season a year ago — the Buckeyes still averaged more than 35 points a game and scored at least 28 points all but twice — all the more difficult to correct considering the youth around Barrett.
“As an offense last year, we didn’t function like we knew we could have,” Barrett said. “So seeing that go down last year and knowing the time it’s going to take in order to make sure that we improve and get better and maximize everybody at the wide receiver position and also me as a quarterback. Just having that in the back of our minds, knowing we’ve got to put this work in to make sure that shows on Saturdays.”
But Ohio State remains confident, with those projecting more big things for the Buckeyes doing so mostly because of Barrett. Meyer called this team his most talented group yet in Columbus, an almost shocking statement following the past two seasons, which featured one of the best collections of college talent ever.
Barrett likes the young guys, too, but he echoes the concerns of his coach, too, namely getting this inexperienced group up to snuff before a tough non-conference test at Oklahoma and a rigorous schedule in the Big Ten East Division.
“I feel like the talent’s still there, it’s just more of the experience that’s lacking,” Barrett said. “So with the experience lacking, the confidence might not be there. The talent may be there when we’re out there running drills on a Monday afternoon at 4 o’clock. But being able to get the experience and the confidence for these guys to be able to go out there and know that they’ll be able to make a play on Saturday, I think that’s something that needs to be developed.”