COLUMBUS, Ohio — Cardale Jones could have been anywhere else other than Ohio State, doing just about anything else with his offseason free time.
But there was nowhere he wanted to be more than back with his old buddy and friendly rival, J.T. Barrett — even if it meant filling in as a snapper for pro day.
Don’t believe that those two guys emerged from one of the most-scrutinized quarterback battles in Ohio State history with an intense friendship instead of a fierce rivalry? It’s been three years since spring ball started with the controversy already swirling around the two, but being in the middle of a hurricane of attention and playing the same position can do funny things.
Nobody understood what Jones was going through back then quite like Barrett. And Barrett couldn’t relate with anybody on a daily basis quite like he could with Jones.
Now they’re the perfect example for the Buckeyes’ new batch of quarterbacks of how teammates can separate the emotions of battling on the field from the personal relationships off it.
“Going through something like that, it changes you,” Jones said. “It’s just really important to enjoy the process and take advantage of it. Don’t take a backseat ride with anything, you know, take advantage of each and every opportunity that you have.
“Yes, it’s a competition. But it’s going to bring out the best in both players. Hopefully it’s going to change both of these guys for the better.”
The scenario certainly isn’t identical this spring for Ohio State as Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow shoot for that coveted spot at the top of the depth chart at the most important position on the field for a national-championship contender. For starters, the Buckeyes consider this a three-man race with Tate Martell thrown into the equation.
But there are similarities, of course. From the strong-armed, physical presences of Haskins and Jones to the dual-threat abilities of Barrett and Burrow, there are clear callbacks to that famous showdown back in 2015 at Ohio State.
So, can the current Buckeyes forge the same kind of unbreakable bond and work together chasing the same team goal? It’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds, even with Barrett and Jones still hanging around campus to show the way.
“Early on it wasn’t all hugs and kisses with those three,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “And if you remember, Cardale Jones is famous for a lot of things around here, and I love Cardale. He turned out to be one of our great players, great ambassadors. It certainly wasn’t like that the whole time. It’s a lot of effort to keep that kind of chemistry on a team.
“That is very uncommon. It’s hard. Those are special guys, unselfish guys. It’s not normally like that.”
Duplicating it again could prove to be even trickier this time around for the Buckeyes, particularly with Burrow’s ability to graduate and transfer after the spring looming over every meeting, snap and touchdown pass on the practice field.
Haskins has been widely projected to take over the offense following his strong freshman season that included him leading a comeback victory on the road against Michigan. He is trying to establish himself as a leader and put his stamp on the Buckeyes as a sophomore.
Martell arrived on campus as one of the most coveted recruits in the country, and his brash, confident approach has had him talking openly about winning the starting job since he arrived. His versatile athleticism figures to make him part of the game plan this season whether the freshman wins that starting job or not.
And then there’s Burrow, who tends to come off as quiet and reserved but has a solid sense of humor and a lot more self-belief than he might let on in public. He, too, has more than enough ability, knowledge of the offense and experience to claim the job and lead the Buckeyes to another Big Ten title.
But can those different personalities stick together with so much at stake? Can they fight off any potential jealousy and instead commit to unconditional support no matter who is playing quarterback? Does a close relationship really even matter in the first place?
“I mean, that really was the standard for quarterback battles,” Burrow said. “[Jones and Barrett are] still best friends today and they each beat each other out about two times. They’re still hanging out every single day when they’re back in Columbus.
“So, I think that’s really hard to do in a quarterback competition because you’re both struggling for your careers. I’m surprised that they were able to do it, but it was impressive.”
Burrow’s familiarity with the story and the fact that he still feels that way about what those two quarterbacks did is revealing, and a reminder that it’s not a given that a bunch of relentless competitors might not always get along wonderfully.
But the Buckeyes definitely know it can be done. And they’re certainly willing to give it a try.
“We’re all super close,” Martell said. “We all kick it even outside of football. Those are some of my best friends.
“You talk to J.T. and Cardale, they are literally best friends. They talk to each other every day and stuff like that, and they were competing right after both of them played in a national championship year. I don’t know, it’s just something about being in the quarterback room, you guys are all just boys.”
The last two guys to emerge from that room as starters clearly made the most out of the experience.
Now, they’ll get to watch and see if three new Ohio State quarterbacks can do the same.