CHICAGO – Don’t let the 44 players with freshmen eligibility fool you. The expectations are still very high at Ohio State.
After losing 16 starters, 12 of them to the NFL draft, Urban Meyer was clear Tuesday morning that there’s a challenge coming for the Buckeyes coaching staff.
“(There’s) a lot of pressure,” Meyer said. “I would say going into this, that this is as talented a group top to bottom as we’ve had. Now how do we get them game-ready?
The task of getting “them” ready – the young guys – falls not only to Meyer and his coaches, but also his returning starters, including redshirt junior, and captain, J.T. Barrett. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Barrett, firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback as he prepares to enter his fourth fall camp, is relaxed and “chill” – his description – but there’s no doubt that he’s focused.
It’d be hard to find a single player in the country who has had a more up and down three-year stretch than Barrett, yet he’s calm as he’s ever been. In 2014, he went from being a presumptive third-string clipboard holder to breaking dozens of Big Ten freshmen records before breaking his ankle against Michigan in the regular season finale.
He then watched Cardale Jones energize the fanbase through the Buckeyes’ improbable title run and found himself in an almost non-winnable quarterback controversy while recovering from that severely broken ankle in 2015. He lost his starting position to Jones, who struggled to get the Buckeyes offense into any sort of discernible rhythm early last season.
Barrett became Ohio State’s proverbial microwave in September, brought in only to heat up the offense when Jones couldn’t get it moving. Fans clamored for him to be the every-game starter and just a week after finally earning that role, Barrett gave it right back.
After two years of back and forth, up and down, Barrett is now the man at Ohio State and, just his luck, he’s expected to lead a football team that has no real identity. There’s no real concept yet of what this Buckeyes team is, what they’ll become or what they’ll turn to if they run into the offensive inconsistencies that plagued them in 2015.
Don’t tell that to J.T. Barrett, because he doesn’t care. There are no excuses at Ohio State, period.
“I don’t see it being any different. I don’t think the expectations are lower because people are gone,” Barrett said Tuesday. “I don’t think that’s fair to the people that came through Ohio State before, myself and the players that are here now, there’s a certain standard at Ohio State and it shouldn’t change for anybody. I don’t care how many people you lost. It didn’t alter or change or lower (our expectations) at all, I don’t think that’s right.
“Not even for the legends before us, but also the fans. You want us to tell the fans ‘Hey, we lost some guys so … yeah I don’t know about that Big Ten championship, I’m sorry,'” he added. “Buckeye nation will look at you crazy like ‘What are you talking about?’ That’s not fair to them. Like I said, even for the legends that went before us, there’s a certain standard at Ohio State and you live by it or you’re not with us, which is OK, too. If you don’t want to be a part of this, I’m not that upset.”
Upset or not, Barrett isn’t crying over the loss of talented players. That’s the expectation at Ohio State. Great players come and great players go. In some ways, Barrett suggested, the offense may find it a bit easier to establish themselves without the big names and stars who expected the ball all day, every day in 2015.
“It was Curtis Samuel and Braxton,” he said when asked why some players didn’t see the ball as much as they could’ve. “OK, let’s talk about Mike Thomas. Want me to keep on going? Jalin Marshall. It was deep everywhere and there’s only one football. Somebody is not getting the ball. We were so deep, it’s one of those things like ‘Who do you want to touch it that play?’ Zeke too, Zeke had to get his touches and make sure he got himself going in our room, it was a sticky situation for sure.”
A sticky situation that isn’t being remedied by a decrease in options, but rather a change in philosophy. Gone is the idea that players needs to get a certain number of touches. Rather, the goal is to run the offense and get the ball to the guy that has the best chance to make a play.
“We still got ballers everywhere, but, I think now it’s going to be – the offense is in place – I think that whatever the play is designed to do, that’s the person who is going to get the ball,” Barrett said. “I think sometimes we tried to formulate certain plays against defenses in the week (leading to a game) in order for a certain person to get the ball instead of just running our offense and letting the ball go where it may.”
The Buckeyes wide receivers, a group that was hampered in 2015 by injuries to Noah Brown and Corey Smith, is a very talented but very young group. It falls on the team leadership, the captain, to make sure that they are doing the right things on, and off, the field. Barrett said he’s much more ready for that role in 2016. That starts with getting his young teammates ready for the upcoming season, finding ways to get them experience without game minutes.
“There’s talent. There’s no drop off as far as talent,” Barrett said. “Having the confidence and experience, I think that’s what makes a difference in being able to see the big plays that come up on Saturdays. We have to try and get those reps in, with experience, in camp and then have them also have the confidence in themselves in order for themselves to make plays on Saturday.”
To lead is to be expected when you’re the returning quarterback, the team leader and the guy freshmen are looking up to. The Wichita Falls, Texas, native isn’t about to take his role lightly. It’s the year of the wolves and Barrett wants to make sure his team is eating, not being eaten.
“It’s definitely more important, just trying to be that whole quarterback that’s making others around you better, right?” Barrett answered when asked how vital his role in the Buckeyes success will be this season. “It’s one of those things, that as the leader of the team and the quarterback in general, you definitely have to put more emphasis, instead of maybe sometimes focusing on how you plan. Last year, I remember a lot of times I had to focus on myself and make sure I came to play, and my preparation was down. Now, I’d rather check on my different people and also make sure I get done what I need to get done.
“It’s a challenge, but I’m willing to accept and it comes with the job.”
It is J.T. Barrett’s job, finally.