COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State offensive coordinator Ed Warinner sat at a round table Saturday, reporters ringing him two deep after the Buckeyes’ spring game.
Demand for information was high. Supply was low.
“The position you all want to talk about,” Warinner said, “there’s nothing else to talk about there.”
The position is quarterback, and with apologies to Warinner that’s what everyone wants to talk about until a 2015 starter is named. This is the most intriguing personnel competition in the nation. Maybe ever.
There have been plenty of two-man quarterback battles between worthy competitors. But how many three-man battles? On a team that won the national title last season and will enter August as the prohibitive title favorite?
The Buckeyes quite possibly have the most proven quarterback talent in college football history. They have a trio of players who have won, and won big, and played superbly in the process.
Braxton Miller is 22-2 as a starting quarterback under Urban Meyer, finished fifth in the 2012 Heisman Trophy voting and set the school record for single-season total offense. His shoulder injury last August was supposed to doom the Buckeyes’ national championship aspirations.
Instead it made room for J.T. Barrett. He is 11-1 as a starting quarterback, finished fifth in the 2014 Heisman voting and broke Miller’s record for single-season total offense. His broken leg in the regular-season finale last November was supposed to doom the Buckeyes’ national championship aspirations.
Instead it cleared the stage for Cardale Jones. He is 3-0 as a starting quarterback, with the three victories coming in the Big Ten championship game, the Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff national championship.
Three stars. One job. This is going to be fascinating.
Meyer’s task is to also make it fair. He said Saturday that the August camp competition will be graded on hard data.
“I'll come up with some kind of system throughout training camp that we're going to chart everything that everyone does,” he said. “And we've kind of done it, but not to the degree that we're going to do it this year. Because you have to be right on now. This can't be, ‘Well, I'm going with him because it's my gut feeling.’ It's got to be statistical analysis and data.
“There's going to be a lot of people interested. I know you guys [reporters], but the families and the players, much more. I want to be able to look those people in the eye and say, ‘This is where we're at,’ and not be a shocker when it happens.”
To date, nobody has turned pro and nobody has transferred to thin the field. Jones, who will be a fourth-year junior, thought about putting his name in the NFL draft after his sudden star turn, but opted to return. Miller, a fifth-year senior, could be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer and there has been plenty of speculation about that – especially with former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman now the head coach at Houston. But nothing has happened yet.
If Miller stays, it could be because his transfer options are limited. Teams might be leery of turning over their offense to a guy coming off two shoulder surgeries – a scope in February 2014 and a more involved procedure to repair a torn labrum in August 2014. Miller hasn’t yet been cleared for full-bore throwing, so it’s too early to know his progress back from the setback that cost him all of last season.
Barrett, who had surgery last December to repair the broken leg suffered against Michigan, joined Miller on the visor-and-shorts squad at the Ohio State spring game. They stood behind the offensive huddle with Meyer, both wearing headsets so they could hear the play calls.
That left the show to Jones, whose game performance was sporadic (19 of 42 for 304 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions). The most impressive thing he did was throw the ball 74 yards in a halftime distance-throwing contest with former Ohio State great Troy Smith and Barrett.
“That’s it?” Jones said, when told how far the throw went. “I was a little tired.”
Said Meyer: “That wasn't a Cardale day. He played behind a makeshift offensive line. I can give you a bunch of excuses, but he's got to be much sharper than that. For the spring, I'd give him a very good spring, though.”
Assuming all three quarterbacks enter fall camp healthy enough to compete, there are compelling cases for each.
The case for Miller: When all three QBs were 100 percent, he was clearly the choice. Miller has the most experience and is the most athletic. (He’s reportedly run a 4.32 40-yard dash, though all 40 times should be viewed with healthy skepticism.) He was expected to have his best year yet, and compete for the Heisman, before the August shoulder blowout.
The case for Barrett: He’s the closest thing to a Meyer soulmate among the three. Barrett is a Type-A worker and natural leader who fits the all-in commitment of his coaching staff. He also was ridiculously productive after being thrown into the fray last season with little August prep time as the starter.
The case for Jones: At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and possessing a cannon of a right arm, he’s the biggest bundle of physical talent and the guy dilating NFL scouts’ pupils. “Sky’s the limit,” Warinner said. Last year the Ohio State staff didn’t think he took his craft seriously enough, but he rose to the extremely high occasion in last year’s postseason. Against three top-15 opponents in his first three college starts, Jones threw for more than 240 yards in each game and ran for 90 yards.
If the quarterbacks play up to their previously demonstrated form, Meyer really can’t make a bad choice. And truth be told, job one for whoever is the starting quarterback is going to be handing off to blossoming superstar running back Ezekiel Elliott, the true hero of the 2014 postseason.
But there figure to be times when Ohio State will need its best quarterback, in order to be the best team it can be. The process of figuring out who that is will get underway in earnest in August.
“We’ve got to wait until the time comes,” Warinner said.
Until that time comes, the intrigue in Columbus will be immense.