Monday, August 3, 2015

August 2015: Ohio State's Excellent Quarterback Problem

Braxton Miller, J. T. Barrett, and Cardale Jones 
      Football season is upon us yet again.  The pro camps are commencing and college media days are taking place.  It all makes me want to write about college football.  And oddly, I want to write about Ohio State.
      I am not an Ohio State fan.  Not by any means.  I am a Michigan fan and they are our great rival.  I do believe that there can be no rival without the rival and that both teams need to win about fifty percent or so to make the rivalry exciting.  Michigan has not been holding up our side of this bargain. Our latest hope is on our new coach John Harbaugh.  Michigan fans are pretty excited to the point of believing that "we're back to the glory days."  I am excited but a little reserved about making any sweeping grandiose claims since we have not even played a game yet and I got over excited by the two previous coaches .   This piece, however, is not about Michigan.  It is not about the rivalry with Ohio State.  It is simply about Ohio State and something, from my perspective, that is very unique and amazing going on down there in Columbus.
     The Buckeyes had something special going on when they hired Jim Tressel.  He won a national championship and beat Michigan regularly.  He was a great recruiter and good coach but left in disgrace given with what I will simply call the Terrelle Pryor incident.  Luke Fickell became the interim coach for a year in which the Buckeyes were uncharacteristically mediocre.  He was holding the job for Urban Meyer who took over in 2012.  Meyer has only lost three games in his tenure in Columbus and won a National Championship last year; the first year of the playoff system.
     I felt a tingle of admiration for the Buckeyes when they kept Luke Fickell as Defensive Coordinator after Urban took over.  I was impressed how they took care of their own.  Meyer could have easily insisted on bringing in his own guy.  I am not often impressed by anything Ohio State does.  But, I had to tip my hat to them on this one.
     Last year, when they won the National Championship, they used their second and third string quarterbacks all season.  Their starting quarterback was to be Braxton Miller.  He was a pre-season Heisman hopeful.  He was a great mobile college quarterback that was a better runner than a passer.  He reminded me of the great Texas quarterback Vince Young.  He was electrifying, deceptively fast, and routinely shredded defenses with both running and passing.  When he went down in the pre-season, most wondered how the Buckeyes would fare without their star quarterback.
     Ohio State began the season with J. T. Barrett, their second stringer, at quarterback.  They beat Navy 34-17 in their first game and then lost their home opener against Virginia Tech 35-21.  At this point, there was a general consensus that the Buckeyes were going to struggle the rest of the season.  Everyone who thought that was wrong including me.  J. T. Barrett, as it turns out, is a very good quarterback.  He was a better passer than a runner and he was a pretty awesome runner.  After the Virginia Tech loss, Barrett led them to nine consecutive wins putting a lot of points on the board.  Commentators were saying he might even be better than Braxton Miller.  He was definitely a much better passer.  In the last regular season game, Barrett was orchestrating a win against Michigan when he suffered a season ending broken ankle in the first play of the fourth quarter.
     With the score being Ohio State 28 and Michigan 21, the Michigan hopeful were actually thinking we might have a chance to win with Ohio State having their third string QB in the game:  some guy named Cardale Jones.  Well... on his next series it was second and fifteen and this third stringer rips off eighteen yards and looked like the best power back on the field doing it.  He continued on from there to seal the win against Michigan.
      Cardale Jones played the remainder of the season.  The Buckeyes stomped Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship game.  They were then selected as one of the four teams in the first ever NCAA Football Playoff Series.  Their first game was against Alabama who they beat 42-35 and then convincingly beat Oregon, with the Heisman Trophy winning Quarterback Marcus Mariota, 42-20.  The buzz was now that Cardale Jones was the best of the three... and it was hard to argue.  He ran like a tailback and passed, to me, like Ben Rothlisberger.
      They won a National Championship basically with their second and third string quarterbacks.  That is a significant accomplishment.  Take any of the top teams that were given a shot at the national title at the beginning of the season.  Then if someone were to tell you their first string quarterback would go down before the season, the second string quarterback would start the 12 regular season games only to get hurt in the 12th game, and any postseason would be using the third string quarterback.  Would anyone think this team be it Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Auburn, Baylor, Texas, or Ohio State would have any hope of even winning their conference let alone win a National Championship?  Very few people would answer affirmative to such a question.
      Yet, Ohio State, Michigan's nemesis, did just that.  Wow.  Unbelievable.
      I discussed that with my colleague in the School of Business and Nonprofit Management at North Park University:  Professor Chris Hubbard.  Chris knows what he is talking about since he teaches leadership and played Division 1 football at Bowling Green as a tailback.  He said it was the Urban Meyer system.  While I agreed that the coaching and management system is important and Urban Meyer has a very good system, there was also a degree of luck involved in having three quarterbacks of that caliber on one team.  There are many coaches with good systems.  Nick Saban immediately comes to mind.  I do not know if Alabama would have won their conference if they had had to use their third string quarterback to do it.  We finally agreed the both the system and luck had something to do with it.
      It was most impressive what Ohio State did.  But, that is not why I am writing about them.  I am writing because all three quarterbacks are returning to Columbus.  That to me is even more amazing then anything.  The buzz was that Cardale Jones was probably going to be the starter.  This led to speculation that Braxton Miller and perhaps even J. T. Barrett might leave Ohio State to ensure a starting position elsewhere.  There was even talk of Cardale Jones opting to go pro.  None of this happened.  All three agreed to stay at Ohio State.   In this day and age of giant egos and doing best for oneself versus the team, that is even a bigger wow to me.
      Quarterbacks transferring schools has become commonplace in the past few years.  Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin from North Carolina State.  For the 2015 season, Evert Golson transferred from Notre Dame to Florida State and Jake Rudock transferred from Iowa to Michigan.  Some Michigan hopeful wanted to see Braxton Miller don the winged helmet, as if that was ever going to happen.
     So, why have all three of these talented quarterbacks decided to stay at Ohio State?  Any agent or financial/career advisor would have had to tell all three that their professional prospects would be heightened if they were the starter at Ohio State... or elsewhere.  I would have expected at least one of them to transfer.  But, it didn't happen.
     I asked the same question to a college coach I recently met.  He reminded me that all three players are well compensated and this contributed to their staying in Columbus.  I do not buy into this for the following reasons.  First, if there is under the table compensation, that is probably available wherever Jones, Barrett, or Miller might have considered transferring to.  Second, as argued above, their potential professional compensation would easily overshadow whatever college level compensation they are getting... especially if they were starters.   So, this line of reasoning made no sense to me.
      What makes sense, and is the astonishing part, is that they have loyalty to Ohio State and loyalty to Urban Meyer and his system.  Assuming they are making decisions based on self-interest, each quarterback believes that staying at Ohio State is their best career move even if they are not the starter.  There is something powerful and magic going on in Columbus.  Perhaps when I post this piece, others will provide theories that are more plausible than what I just stated.  We shall see.
     While they may not all start at quarterback, they may all start.  It was recently reported that Braxton Miller will be a wide receiver because that is probably where he would play as a professional.  OK that makes sense and really is not a surprise to anyone that has thought about this.
      This brings me to my final point.  Could Barrett, Jones, and Braxton all be playing at the same time?  Make Barrett the quarterback, Jones as wishbone running back along with Ezekiel Elliott, and Braxton at wide receiver.  By the way, Ezekiel Elliott is a preseason Heisman candidate himself. Three of the four are awesome runners.  Three of the four are very good passers.  Who gets the ball and what do they do with it?  How could teams hope to defend such a versatile offensive backfield and wide receiver?  Think of the reverses and double reverses with Miller, Elliott, and Jones.  Think of the run-pass options.  It is almost mind boggling.  It is like the modern manifestation of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen.
     Now platooning quarterbacks is something fans think is cool.  Coaches do not usually do it.  They do not think it is a good idea.  The quarterback position is so important that coaches want to build their offenses around the styles of one quarterback, not two, and most definitely not three.  But, coaches do not usually have this excellent talent problem facing Urban Meyer.  Barrett is a quarterback.  Jones and Miller are quarterbacks, running backs, and ends simultaneously.  Why not use their skills and drive opponents insane trying to defend against all the possibilities the Four Horsemen bring to the gridiron.  Urban Meyer is a great offensive coach.  I have to assume he has been hard at work to be able to leverage this once in lifetime confluence of talent.
     Ohio State is a preseason favorite to repeat as National Champions.  They look great on paper.  They are coming off a spectacular season.  They might be one of the best teams ever.  They might be the team of the century just like everyone was touting the Buckeye team of 1969.
     Hey a fella can dream can't he?