The starting quarterback position at Ohio State is set in stone.
Senior Braxton Miller — and his two, back-to-back Chicago Tribune Silver Footballs for Big Ten Most Valuable Player honors — has that spot locked up.
But with fan favorite and coach-on-the-field Kenny Guiton out of eligibility and looking to get a shot in the NFL, the player who will fill the backup slot behind Miller is a glaring question mark during spring practice.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said last week the competition has picked up between redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones and redshirt-freshman J.T. Barrett, but said Jones has the early edge and has been running with the first team offense while Miller rehabs from shoulder surgery.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman echoed that sentiment Tuesday after practice.
“Cardale’s done a great job,” Herman said. “He’s playing like a quarterback at Ohio State should, but through the nine practices, we just need for those guys to play to their strengths.”
Barrett and Jones carry entirely different body types — Barrett is just 6 feet 1 inches tall and is listed at 225 pounds, while Jones towers above the other quarterbacks on roster at 6 feet 5 inches and is a solid 250 pounds. Jones’ strong arm is his identity, while Barrett is more a finesse player who focuses on getting the ball to his receivers on time. Getting each player to understand that, Herman said, is half the battle.
“I tell those two guys a lot of the time, ‘Just be you.’ Their strengths are so different,” Herman said. “I tell J.T., you get paid — and he gets paid a scholarship, that’s what I’m talking about — to make great decisions, to get the ball out of your hands and be accurate. You’re not going to grow (physically) … Cardale is 6 foot 5 and 250 pounds and can throw it through that wall.”
The only quarterback on the roster with game experience other than Miller is Jones, who played in three games of mop-up duty last season after the outcome of those games had already been decided in favor of the Buckeyes.
Barrett redshirted last season while recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus that ended his senior season at Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas.
The opportunity to further develop each player with Miller out is both a good and bad thing, Herman said. The good: each young guy gets an opportunity to get snaps with the first team offense. The bad: Miller is missing out on vital practice time in his own progression as a player.
“Is it frustrating? Yes,” Herman said of not being able to fully work with Miller. “But I think if you dwell on what you can’t do with him, you forget or maybe you don’t do justice to the things that we’re trying to do with him.”
Among those things are having a camera on his hat as Miller watches plays unfold in practice, and reviewing them with Herman and Meyer at the end of the day to learn more about what the defensive unit is doing.
“Braxton stands behind (the other quarterbacks) and gets all the mental reps like Kenny Guiton used to last year,” Meyer said after practice March 18.
That’s as important a step as any, Herman said.
“Right now I can tell in the meetings he’s more engaged,” Herman said of Miller. “And I’ll say this again. Braxton, in my opinion, has always been very football smart. You don’t get to do the things you do on a football field without understanding what’s going on.”
But with how injury-prone OSU’s starter was last year — Miller sprained his MCL early in OSU’s 42-7 win against San Diego State Sept. 7 and missed the next two games, and also missed time in the team’s Orange Bowl loss to Clemson — having a solid backup like Guiton is vital.
While Jones has impressed enough to earn the majority of the first-team reps, he was inaccurate Saturday in the first team scrimmage of the spring — one the defense won.
“It was a ‘This is my first scrimmage on a winner-loser day, running as quarterback with the first offense at the Ohio State University and I’m nervous as hell,’” Herman said on Jones’ performance. “And it showed.”
But a day like that is all part of the maturation process, Herman said, and isn’t symbolic of what either man has done so far in spring practice.
“What they showed on Saturday was not indicative of the previous four practices or (Tuesday’s) practice,” Herman said. “Everything about spring ball is a learning experience. And these guys are doing that each and every rep they take.”
The Buckeyes are set to take on Navy in their first game of the season Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Kickoff is set for noon.