A year ago in Columbus, it was taken for granted that the quarterback competition staring down Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes was a “good problem to have.” That was the quote du jour — everybody insisted that having J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller compete for the defending champions’ starting quarterback job was a positive.
Miller eventually dropped out of the running, deciding to switch to slot receiver. That left Barrett, who probably would’ve been a Heisman finalist in 2014 had he not fractured his right ankle (the same injury suffered by Malik Zaire) in the Buckeyes’ regular season finale against Michigan, and Jones, who won Ohio State a Big Ten Championship, a College Football Playoff semifinal and a national championship.
With Ohio State’s 2015 season in the rearview mirror, and Notre Dame staring down a similar quarterback challenge, Buckeyes players and coaches offered their advice as to what Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, DeShone Kizer, Zaire and Brandon Wimbush should prepare themselves for over the next eight months.
“The main thing, at the end of the day, be yourself,” Barrett said. “If you can be the best self you can be, that’s all you can do. And then understand that you control what you can control. With doing that, you put yourself in the best position that you can be in and then let the coaches do their job and evaluate.”
Jones, who opened the 2015 season as Ohio State’s starter, echoed a similar sentiment.
“Do what you guys did to get there,” Jones said. “There’s a reason why every Division I player is at the level they’re playing at because they’re hard-workers, they’re leaders, they’re tough. I think if guys continue to be their self, you gotta be happy with the results.”
Ohio State didn’t tab Jones as its initial starting quarterback without weeks and months of continual evaluation. Offensive coordinator Ed Warriner said both statistical and intangible factors were considered, from completion percentage to ability to audible and pick up blitzes. But the most important part of the process was letting both Barrett and Jones know where they stood at all times.
“The best thing to do is constant communication with those guys and constant evaluation so they know where they’re at,” Warriner said. “Here’s the things that you’re behind in, here’s the things that you’re ahead in.”
But there can be a downside to that constant evaluation, especially for the guy who’s slipping toward being relegated to backup duties. Barrett admitted he was pressing early on, trying to do too much — even though that’s exactly what his coaches wanted. Meyer said it’s a good thing when a quarterback takes that approach, though parsing Barrett’s comments, it didn’t appear to work for him.
“You try to get to a point in a competition where you try to best showcase your talents,” Barrett said. “But at the end of the day, that might bring stress. I know it did to me, just trying to do too much and not really playing my game.”
Warriner observed the same stress, which certainly didn’t help Barrett in the preseason quarterback competition (which he ultimately lost to Jones). The fear of making a mistake was there, borne of a self-inflicted pressure to play perfect in order to win the job.
“You can’t play well looking over your shoulder,” Warriner said. “You can’t look in the rearview mirror and try to figure out what’s going on. You have to look forward. I’m sure there was a little bit of that going on early.”
Barrett supplanted Jones as Ohio State’s starter for its Oct. 24 game against Rutgers, then was suspended two weeks (one game) after being charged with DUI. Jones started Nov. 7 against Minnesota, then Barrett returned for an uninspiring win over Illinois. The next week was that season-killing loss to Michigan State, the one that kept one of college football’s four best teams out of the four-team playoff. There probably were only two teams capable of beating Alabama this year: Clemson and Ohio State.
For Jones, hearing the news that he was being demoted wasn’t easy. This was a guy who decided against capitalizing on his meteoric three-game rise and entering the NFL Draft to return to Ohio State, and now was going to finish out his final year in Columbus on the bench.
“It was difficult when they broke the news to me because it was kind of an ego thing, a pride thing,” Jones said. “But I understood what wasn’t working, what we needed to do as an offense to not only make this offense successful but this team special. Understanding my abilities, and his at the time was better for what we wanted to do as an offense, then there’s nothing I could do about it.”
This is where calling a quarterback competition between two or three talented and/or accomplished players may not be an entirely good problem to have. Feelings will be hurt, stress will be inflicted, and — as was the case with Ohio State’s offense for a good chunk of the season — expectations may not be met. The threat of losing the job you have, or used to have, because of a bad week of practice or a bad game can have far-reaching negative effects.
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
The lesson for Notre Dame is that things aren't guaranteed to go smoothly over the next eight months.
Barrett and Zaire are friends and met as recruits at the Elite 11 quarterback camp in 2012. He’s already reached out to Zaire, who will be a redshirt junior in 2016, about how to handle the situation. It’s not an enviable one, given Kizer set a Notre Dame record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and steered the Irish to nine of their 10 wins in 2015.
But Barrett believes Zaire has the right mentality to handle the competition and give himself a chance at winning his job back. His other key piece of advice: Trust your coaches, and don’t worry about anything but how to improve yourself on a daily basis.
“We talked about it a little bit. I was telling him, at the end of the day, you only control what you can control,” Barrett said. “I think I tend to not focus on that as much. I started to later in the year. If I could be my best, then that's all I could be at the end of the day. Just have trust in the coaches that they're going to do their job well, that's evaluating the players and deciding who is going to be the best person to play.
“That's one of the things I focused on later in the year in order to help me play well. That's what I told him. At the end of the day, that's all you can do. You can't do anything outside yourself. That's part of it. I think the main thing is to control what you can control, then leave it in the coaches' hands, have faith they're going to do their job and you're going to be the starting quarterback.”