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The legend of Joe Burrow: From overlooked at Ohio State to Heisman frontrunner at LSU

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Few people paid attention to Joe Burrow when he showed up at Ohio State in the summer of 2015. Burrow, a skinny three-star quarterback recruit, wore Mickey Mouse T-shirts, SpongeBob pajama pants and often had a green tongue from his addiction to caramel apple lollipops. Burrow told his teammates that people watching at Walmart was a favorite pastime back in the Athens, Ohio, area where he grew up. He famously once declared to Tim Beck, the Buckeyes’ offense coordinator: “Coach, I’m growing a mullet.”

He joined a quarterback room at Ohio State in the summer of 2015 that doubled as a fishbowl, deemed the country’s most compelling position group a few minutes after Ohio State won the 2014 national title. J.T. Barrett stuck around to battle Cardale Jones for the starting job throughout the season, while Braxton Miller exited to chase glory in the wide receiver room. The whole world watched, fixated on every twist.

Then there was Burrow, ignored publicly and tested privately by his teammates and coaches. Urban Meyer, who is notoriously hard on young quarterbacks, spent parts of Burrow’s freshman season declaring he belonged in Division III. The veterans showed the rookie plenty of tough love, too, renaming him “John Burrow” because J.T. Barrett’s first name is Joe.

“It wasn’t my favorite thing,” Joe Burrow said with a chuckle in a phone interview on Monday. “I thought I’d get a cooler nickname.”

His whole freshman year followed that same unpleasant path, as Joe Burrow swallowed the realization of how much better he needed to get while experiencing daily the wrong end of rites of passage. Jones said it wasn’t uncommon for Burrow to answer something in a meeting and for him to cut him off: “Hey John, shut the f - - - up.”

Burrow later confessed to Beck a pithy summary of his freshman year: “I hated all you guys.”

The overlooked, underprepared and often picked-on quarterback is now all grown up, soaring past those whose shadows he toiled in. Four years, one transfer and plenty of scar tissue later, LSU’s Joe Burrow has improbably authored one of the most impressive seasons in the history of college football. He’s come a long way from “Division III,” as he’s the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy, on track for the highest completion percentage in the history of the sport and projects as a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

LSU Heisman contender Joe Burrow has come a long way from his days at Ohio State. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
LSU Heisman contender Joe Burrow has come a long way from his days at Ohio State. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

But any notion of suddenness to his emergence into the rarest of airs of college football isn’t quite right. He calls it a “four or five-year process,” including three years of quiet development at Ohio State without a meaningful game snap. Burrow is the son of a coach, and he earned the respect of the coaches and staff for taking hits in practice, developing on his own and never changing demeanor from the mullet-aspiring, cartoon shirt-wearing kid he arrived as. Even when his name changed, Joe Burrow didn’t.

“I wasn’t ready to play at all, and everyone knew it,” Burrow said. “I started from the bottom, and working and working and working. That’s a theme with all the great quarterbacks, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. They didn’t have it easy at any point.”

Burrow goes on to list the familiar tribulations in the narrative of those Hall of Famers – sixth-rounder, JUCO, shoulder surgery – before concluding on himself. “Adversity is a key component in building the kind of players to succeed at the next level. I’m forever grateful I went through that adversity.”

The surprising part of Burrow’s ascent from “John Burrow” to one of the sport’s most celebrated players is that so few of the people who met him early in his career are actually surprised. They saw a talented and quirky kid undeterred by the quarterbacks ahead of him and the intimidating environment around him.

As Burrow prepares to lead No. 2 LSU against No. 3 Alabama in the biggest regular-season game in college football this weekend, the possibility looms that everyone at Ohio State could see just how far he’s come up close in the College Football Playoff. And those who pushed and teased him the most from his time in Columbus have admired how Burrow stayed true to himself, failing to flinch and still showing up in his trademark lime-green shorts every day.

“I want to see fight in a young quarterback,” Meyer said. “And Joe was all fight.”

How John Burrow became legend

The tall tales of John Burrow flow like fables now that his career has become so storybook. He’s torched the assistant coach that recruited him, now-Texas coach Tom Herman, by throwing for 471 yards and four touchdowns in Austin.

He’s overhauled LSU’s offensive identity, transforming a defiantly stone-age offense into futuristic over the span of three months. (This particularly delights Jones, who declared: “He made their ass adapt to his skill set.”) He’s gone from the business end of Urban Meyer’s motivational mind games to receiving verbal bouquets from his old coach, now an analyst on Fox. The two remain close, with Burrow texting his appreciation and Meyer open with his admiration.

But life wasn’t coming at Joe Burrow that fast in the summer of 2015. With playing time a rumor, Burrow built the base of this star-kissed run by overhauling his throwing motion — a nuanced, tedious and monotonous process.

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Burrow arrived at Ohio State with gaudy statistics, including more than 11,400 yards in his career and 63 touchdowns and two interceptions as a senior. Herman and director of recruiting Mark Pantoni stood on the table for the Buckeyes to sign Burrow.

“He embodied all of the intangibles that you’d want from a quarterback,” Herman told Yahoo Sports. “Competitive, toughness and football smarts from growing up around the game.”

But to become a factor in the quarterback room at Ohio State, he needed to add strength, juice up the velocity on his passing and work to shorten a “baseball release” delivery.

“That first year is hard, realizing that you’re not as good as you thought you were,” said Barrett, relating to his own struggles. “Then being told on top of that you’re awful. Coach Meyer puts a lot of pressure on quarterbacks to be great and test how tough you are. To be his quarterback, you have to be a tough guy.”

Barrett recalls a day when Meyer chided Burrow by saying he should be at Division-III Mount Union. He tried to cheer up Burrow, recalling this exchange:

Barrett: Don’t worry about it. I had Sam Houston State my freshman year. Don’t worry about it.

Burrow: Damn, I couldn’t even get FCS.

Barrett: I don’t know what to say about that. I don’t have words for that.

Burrow had two cheerleaders in his corner – Beck, his position coach and coordinator, and assistant quarterback coach Mike Hartline. Throughout the season, as Burrow hit bouts of uncertainty, Hartline recalled Beck telling Burrow: “Don’t stop being you. You’re special for a reason. You’re here for a reason.”

Every day after practice, Burrow tried to prove them right. He went through a daily set of drills to help refine his throwing motion. He’d set up teammates and managers to help him work on Quick Throw drills, to help his release. The drills looked goofy, as Burrow would take rapid-fire snaps and throw the ball with the sole purpose to get it out of his hand as fast as possible. Some days, he’d throw hundreds of balls.

It didn’t matter if he grabbed the laces or threw it with any accuracy. The point was to improve the twitch. Burrow attacked the work, filming the sessions on his phone and watching them to see where he could improve. Once the twitch quickened, the drills adapted to put a premium on accuracy and more game-realistic throws. “He wanted critiques,” said Hartline, a former Kentucky quarterback. “What was lacking? What was the problem? He wanted to know the why and how to fix it.”

Joe Burrow looks on during an Ohio State Buckeyes game on Oct. 1, 2016. (Getty)
Joe Burrow looks on during an Ohio State Buckeyes game on Oct. 1, 2016. (Getty)

Hartline compares the other process of helping Burrow reduce his throwing motion to a golfer shortening his backswing. Burrow would mimic the quarterback throwing motion with his right shoulder nearest to a wall. He’d slowly release the ball, and when the tip of the ball hit the wall, that’s where the start of the footwork part of the drill would begin in order to shorten his motion. They then went over nuances like foot placement, stressing that the back right arch of the foot guides the throw, not necessarily pointing with the left toe.

“It was a long and grueling process of finding the right throwing motion for the power I needed on the ball,” Burrow said. “It was tinkering for two or three years with where I held the ball – up, down, back and forward. I wasn’t playing, so I could do it.”

By the spring of his freshman year, Meyer had elevated Burrow from Mount Union to FCS Youngstown State. By then, he’d earned a reputation for unflappability from his coach’s motivational tweaks. As Jones said in his vintage eloquence: “His give-a-sh- - factor for not giving a sh- - about that was at an all-time high at a young age.”

With two years under Beck and a season learning from then-assistant coach Ryan Day, “John Burrow” earned everyone in the program’s respect. And by the time he became an old head in the quarterback room, he was eager to finally deliver some of the needling. He bestowed Dwayne Haskins with the name “Ross” in 2016 and Tate Martell with the name “Chuck” in 2017, smiling all the way.

“I enjoyed naming the next two,” he said.

Family matters: Coach’s son all grown up

In the shadows of Tiger Stadium, on the opposite side from where players enter on the Tiger Walk, Jimmy Burrow has discovered one of the few experiences he’d never run across in a football life – tailgating. While watching his son develop into one of the best players in college football, Jimmy Burrow has needed to discover a whole new skill set.

“The 11 a.m. games are rough,” he says with a chuckle in a phone interview. He adds: “I didn’t know the particulars of how all that worked. The four- and five-hour tailgates, you need a lot of stamina for that.”

Jimmy Burrow, 65, played in the Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl for Tom Osborne at Nebraska, got drafted by the Packers and won a Grey Cup playing for Marv Levy in Montreal. He lived the typical coaching vagabond life, bouncing around from Pullman to Ames to Lincoln to, finally, Athens, where he retired as Ohio University’s defensive coordinator last year after 14 seasons so he could catch all of Joe’s games. Who could have guessed the best story of his football life would be unfolding in his own family?

Jimmy and his wife, Robin, have made it to all of their son’s games this year, savoring the memories and marinating in a new culture. They bought a tailgate spot outside Tiger Stadium with other family members, quickly learning to tailor the menu for the opponent, including gator bites for the Florida game.

No one’s perspective of Joe Burrow’s rise is more nuanced than Jimmy, who in retirement has become a de facto cheerleader and SID for his son. Jimmy appears locally on a weekly Louisiana radio station and jokes that Joe has asked him to stop sending him articles.

“Coach [Frank] Solich would have fired me if I’d been doing this many interviews last year,” he said of his long-time boss at Ohio University.

The theme of being a coach’s son comes up constantly in interviews about Joe’s development. But even parental optimism couldn’t have allowed Jimmy Burrow to expect a possible playoff bid and high-end NFL future for his son.

“Well, I’d certainly be lying if I could have predicted this was all going to happen,” Jimmy Burrow said. “Yes, I thought Joe could play QB at a very high level. That’s playing out. All the other awards and attention, all that is overwhelming at times.”

LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) greets fans before their game against the Florida Gators at Tiger Stadium. (USA Today)
LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) greets fans before their game against the Florida Gators at Tiger Stadium. (USA Today)

Jimmy Burrow recalls the moment when he realized his son would be a Division I football prospect. He’d seen his son flash superior athleticism in travel basketball and knew he’d developed toughness from his older brothers, Dan and Jamie, who both played at Nebraska. He takes particular pride in noting that Joe asked former Ohio State special teams coach Kerry Coombs to play him on kickoff coverage early in his career so he could get on the field. “We always talk about toughness,” Jimmy said of the family.

But when Joe’s 7-on-7 team marched up and down the field as a high school sophomore, Jimmy Burrow wasn’t sure. He turned to Kevin Schwarzel, a Big Ten referee who had an older son on the team and asked a question.

Jimmy: Do they always score this easily?

Kevin: No, this is different.

As his son adjusted to college football at Ohio State, Jimmy Burrow understood why Meyer was so hard on his son. He could relate, as he was often hardest on the players who he knew could eventually star for him. “We all knew Joe was going to be able to handle all that,” Jimmy Burrow said.

Burrow’s career arc at Ohio State changed trajectory during his redshirt sophomore year. Meyer told Yahoo that Burrow was “on pace” to win the backup quarterback job over Dwayne Haskins. But late in summer camp, he broke his hand in a freak accident during practice. Haskins assumed the backup job and got the call when Barrett got hurt at Michigan. Haskins led two touchdown drives in a comeback victory, helping cement him ahead of Burrow. They battled for the job in the spring, but Burrow couldn’t unseat Haskins. “It was razor thin [at that point],” Meyer said. “I don’t ever remember spending that much time on any position battle. Everything was charted. We owed it to Joe.”

Burrow transferred that spring, with Jimmy helping guide him through the process. His only visits came to LSU and Cincinnati, where former Buckeye defensive coordinator Luke Fickell had become coach and Hartline, now the offensive coordinator at Ohio Dominican, worked quality control at the time. (The other option was North Carolina, with whom the Burrows spent a lot of time in touch but never visited.)

“Joe chose to go to LSU to play in big games like Saturday,” Jimmy said. “He’s always in his mind wanted to win a national championship. That’s why he went to Ohio State and why he chose LSU.”

Robin remains an elementary school principal in Reedsville, Ohio. She and Jimmy have roadtripped to every game, staying at Joe’s apartment in Baton Rouge — unless his buddies from Ohio State or Athens are crashing that weekend, then they get a hotel. (Joe notes that his mother keeps his beloved caramel apple lollipops supplied at the apartment. Joe likes the suckers so much that he was asked to the prom by a girl in high school with a bag of them. Of course, he said yes.)

Jimmy Burrow is still an old coach. He leaves the tailgate early to see his son on the Tiger walk, where Joe always hugs Robin before walking into the stadium. Jimmy likes to get in early and watch how Joe looks in warm-ups. Throughout all his coaching and playing years, Jimmy never played in Tuscaloosa.

It’s another memory for the family, and Joe’s voice catches on the phone when asked about his dad being there all season for the journey. “Having him here every game has been super special,” Joe Burrow said. “I know it’s been special for my mom, too, as she traveled alone to games last year. It’s been super special for my whole family.”

Burrow and Brady: A match made in heaven

J.T. Barrett is the only person who could have forecasted the defining bromance of the 2019 season – quarterback Joe Burrow and new Tigers passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

Barrett jokes he was like a matchmaker preparing both sides for a first date after LSU hired Brady from the New Orleans Saints in January. Barrett worked closely with Brady, then a Saints offensive assistant, during his time rotating on and off the New Orleans roster in 2018.

So when Barrett heard the news, he called Burrow immediately with a prediction: “You and Joe Brady are going to be best friends.”

The bromance has blossomed to the point where Burrow and Brady have become one of the sport’s defining tandems this season. Brady’s innovative schemes and Burrow’s precipitous improvement from his first season at LSU have rocketed Tiger football from the analog offensive era to digital in warp speed.

LSU Tigers passing game coordinator Joe Brady talks with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger (right) before a game on Oct. 5. (Getty)
LSU Tigers passing game coordinator Joe Brady talks with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger (right) before a game on Oct. 5. (Getty)

They’ve both enhanced each other’s stock, as Brady went from an anonymous former Penn State graduate assistant to one of the profession’s precocious talents. Burrow’s transformation in Brady’s pass game has been nothing short of miraculous, as his 78.8 percent completion percentage is higher than Colt McCoy’s NCAA record of 76.7 in 2008. Burrow also has 30 touchdowns, four interceptions and is averaging 10.8 yards per attempt.

What’s most remarkable is the arc of improvement for Burrow. He’s jumped 21 percent in completion percentage after completing 57.8 percent of his passes last season. He finished with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt in 2018.

The passing game that Brady brought mixes RPOs with an NFL-style quick passing game similar to the Saints. One coach who studied it told Yahoo Sports that the genius is that it’s “cosmic in its simplicity.” In some ways, it’s comparable to an Air Raid offense in that there aren’t an overwhelming amount of plays. That’s given Burrow a familiarity and comfort level to hit his trio of elite receivers – Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. – at such an elite clip.

Essentially, simplicity allows for mastery. Barrett chuckles while watching LSU and seeing the overlap with what he learned with the Saints. He points out that LSU put in choice routes for receivers, giving them three different options on a play. “They run it out of different formations,” Barrett said. “It looks the same, but it can be different seven times out of 10.”

Burrow said the genius of what Brady has brought to the pass game is LSU’s ability to exploit mismatches. Part of that comes from the flexibility of the receivers, as the X has to be comfortable moving out to the field or the slot sliding to the boundary.

“We get the best players in space to the guy we want to put them against,” Burrow said. “We don’t do a lot of things. But we do it out of a lot of different formations. All my reads are really simple – 1-2-3-4 across the field.”

When Barrett was still playing in New Orleans, he visited Burrow a few times in Baton Rouge. They went out one night to famed nightspot, Tigerland, and Barrett beamed as he saw his old backup getting familiar star treatment. Of course, he couldn’t resist: “I tease him about that,” Barrett said. “You the man down here in the Bayou.”

Rest assured, everyone around Baton Rouge knows Burrow’s birth name. Looking back, Burrow says he’s “super appreciative” of Meyer’s barbs and his teammates’ tweaks. “Not only on the field,” Burrow said. “But off the field, making me mentally tough and a better man. I knew it was going to come. As cocky as that sounds. I knew the work that I was putting in.”

John Burrow, as we’ll see on full display Saturday, has transferred up from Division III to make a name for himself.

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