COLUMBUS, Ohio — With Ohio State trailing Bowling Green 7-0, J.T. Barrett took two steps back and paused ever so briefly before stepping into a throw. The ball sailed 50 yards with a picture-perfect arc, coming down just over the shoulder of freshman wide receiver K.J. Hill, who hauled in the pass for Ohio State’s first touchdown of the 2016 season.
It was the type of pass he was criticized for not completing consistently last year, and it was perhaps a sign of things to come this season. The junior quarterback accounted for seven total touchdowns – six through the air and one on the ground – to set a program record, and he piloted the Buckeyes offense to another Ohio State record with 776 yards of total offense. Although he opened the season by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown, he bounced back to help Ohio State finish with 77 points, the highest single-game total for the program since 1950.
He was named the Big Ten offensive player of the week and vaulted into Heisman consideration. More importantly for Ohio State, Barrett looks nothing like he did at the start of 2015. After losing the starting job to Cardale Jones, Barrett’s nonconference stats were shockingly average: 21 of 38 passes completed for 167 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
He progressed as the season went on and shined against Michigan and then again in a Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame, but his dismantling of Bowling Green was on another level.
So what has changed? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
The top source of speculation regarding his inconsistent season last fall was the impact the quarterback battle had on both Barrett and Jones. Barrett has often demurred when reporters have offered that as a possible explanation for his struggles.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer doesn’t seem to think last year’s system was the root of Barrett’s 2015 performance. When asked Monday if Barrett could have bounced back from that interception as easily if Jones were still an option, Meyer reaffirmed his approval of competition.
“It always comes up when you have two quality players, you make a mistake like that and you’re out,” he said. “The other guy goes in. Some people don’t like that. Obviously I’d love to have that. I wish I had three of them that were J.T.’s caliber.
“Does that put more pressure on a player? So be it. That’s what happens at the next level. So I think he’s such a leader, such a veteran, and I think he knows this is his show.”
However, count offense guard Billy Price as someone who thinks not having to fight for his job has played at least some role in Barrett’s success this fall.
“You don’t have that person casting a shadow behind you, and you really have the freedom to do things without losing your job,” he said.
Barrett is in his fourth season at Ohio State and his third as a quarterback who has received significant playing time. Additionally – and this goes back partially to the quarterback battle – he’s receiving all of the first-team reps instead of splitting them with Jones.
“I think when you say that, it’s just the amount of repetitions at that position,” Meyer said. “Whether you’re a veteran or not you need all the reps. He’s our No. 1 quarterback. He received all the No. 1 reps. You get timing with receivers. You can see there were some beautiful passes Saturday.
“There were a couple of corner routes to Curtis (Samuel) and Dontre (Wilson) and those were well-executed plays because they practiced it all the time.”
Former Ohio State quarterback Cornelius Greene won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football as the Big Ten’s MVP in 1975 and has never missed a chance to watch Barrett play over the last three years. He expressed similar sentiments about Barrett’s growth and said he viewed Barrett’s career path similar to his, in which he progressed steadily over the course of his career.
“Obviously the biggest thing I’ve seen is that he knows the offense,” he said. “It’s not like he’s a first-year player. He knows where everybody’s supposed to be, he can tell everybody what their assignments are, he can command the offense and make young guys feel like they’ve been around for a while.”
It came with experience, but it also came with work. Barrett said he made a concerted effort to develop that aspect of his game.
“The things I got better at was things I talked about like being able to see the defense and transition what I saw on film on to the field,” he said. “The first touchdown to K.J., I saw the no-deep look that we practiced on the field and in practice but also saw on film and what the look was going to look like and then checked into the protection and gave the routes, and we scored.”
At Wichita Falls (Texas) Rider, they called the tempo offense NASCAR, and Barrett was their Dale Earnhardt.
“He definitely understands that once you go to NASCAR pace, defenses will have to stay pretty basic in their fronts and in their coverages,” said James Garfield, who coached Barrett at Rider. “You don’t have a lot of time to signal in any blitz packages or anything like that. When it’s time to speed up, it’s to the offense’s advantage because it makes the defense become vanilla. You can attack the areas of the field you know are going to be open.”
After offensive coordinator Tom Herman left for Houston following the 2014 season, Ohio State faced a conundrum. New offensive coordinator Ed Warinner was also renowned for his work with the offensive line, so Meyer kept him on the sideline instead of upstairs. He didn’t move up to the booth until the final game of the regular season, at which point Ohio State began playing faster and racking up points.
The Buckeyes scored 42 against Michigan and 44 against Notre Dame and picked up right where they left off in the 2016 opener against Bowling Green.
“That’s something we probably got away from (early) last year, playing fast and keeping our tempo,” Barrett said. “When you do that, you get a lot of plays in. That gives you an opportunity to get those explosive plays because there are more of them because you’re just running more plays.”
Aside from all the external factors at play, Barrett is simply throwing better. Greene said he noticed an improved deep ball from Barrett, who showed it off on that 47-yard opening score to Hill.
Garfield, who has watched Barrett throw more than just about anyone else in the country, said he immediately noticed some technical improvements in Barrett’s release.
“I talked to him Sunday morning and the one thing that really stood out to him for me was his release,” he said. “I was asking him what he had done in the offseason to work on that, because it looks like the ball is coming out a lot faster and a lot stronger. He said it’s just how he warms up now. I was really impressed with what he’s doing to warm up his shoulder before he goes out on the field.”
In addition to having the ability to make better throws now, Barrett is also doing a better job of leading receivers than in past years. It reflected in his completion percentage against Bowling Green, with a 67.8 percent accuracy mark.
“He was throwing the routes open,” Garfield said. “He understands the ball needs to be out before the break. It’s hard to teach young kids that because they want to see the route open before they throw it, but he throws the route open and his reads were phenomenal.
“He’s a perfectionist. He really pays attention to detail when it comes to whatever he’s doing, whether it be on the field or off the field. He’s always been like that. Over the last couple of years, he’s had other quarterbacks that were just as good or better than him at some things, but this year he has a little bit more of a confidence about him.”