COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is preparing for his third visit to the White House, an honor bestowed on the national champions every year. He is also leading the Buckeyes through one of the most fascinating and scrutinized position battles in college football, as the Buckeyes’ quarterback quandary has captured the nation’s attention more than any other spring storyline. In a sit-down interview in his office, Meyer talked about Braxton Miller’s development, J.T. Barrett’s health and Cardale Jones’s maturation. As for the competition, Meyer said with a smile, “I don’t want to say I’m ignoring it, but I’m ignoring it.” (Miller and Barrett are injured this spring, making that easier.) Meyer also dished on a myriad of topics: President Barack Obama, spring ball, keeping the joy in winning, Joey Bosa embracing stardom and his worries about Ezekiel Elliott.
SI: To begin, catch everyone up with what you’ve been doing since winning the title. Has it been a whirlwind?
Urban Meyer: We won the game, the next day it was real late at night, you almost have the dreams of, I’m going to go celebrate and stay up all night. At 50 years old, that didn’t work. I stayed up for an hour, moseyed my way back to the room. The next morning, got up, flew home—it was a travel day. The next day it was kind of get organized and get out recruiting. Players were back at school immediately, and so we just had our first week off for spring break. I had one because I go on the Nike trip, but the assistant coaches didn’t. I gave them two days. Nice guy, huh? I give two days, they had their week off and the players had their week off. That was the first time they had more than two days off since last June. The whole burnout, just got to be real cautious. I’m more watching that than I ever have because these kids played their tails off.
SI: Your third trip to the White House is coming up. Any expectations?
UM: First one was George Bush [in 2007]. I love him. It was great. I still keep in touch with him. President Obama was fantastic, I’ll never forget he said: “I want to shake every man’s hand.” We were the first team to see him in 2008 after his inauguration. I already spoke to him, and I’m really excited for our players. We’ll try to make it a good trip, go where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I have an expert that’s going to talk them about what actually happened, who lived it back then. I’m going to make it a classroom for our players.
SI: You cracked up during your entire interview with David Letterman in January. What was that like? Had you ever been on the show before?
UM: No, it was my first trip. I don’t stay up past 10 now, but I used to watch all the time. I couldn’t stop laughing. If you remember I was laughing because his face, he’s just a funny-looking guy. But that was an in-and-out trip. They throw some makeup on, car comes and picks you up and you’re out of there. I was recruiting, so I was already out there. A car came and picked me up and drove me into the city. I’ll tell you, it was probably an hour. That’s it. Drove in. People waiting for you, take you in, start putting stuff on you. Producer comes in, “Hey, O.K., five minutes we’re up. Here are some of the questions he might ask you. Have fun with it. Bye.” Dave was great, by the way.
SI: A few people around the program have identified wide receiver Noah Brown as someone who could break out in the 2015 season. If you were to point to a player poised to take the next step, who would you start with?
UM: I’d probably start with him. Sam Hubbard, the defensive end. Johnnie Dixon, wide receiver. Michael Thomas is knocking the top off it right now at receiver. Curtis Samuel is one of the top five, eight playmakers on the team, so we have to play him. I’m moving him around. I’m going to move him to receiver just because he has to play 50 plays. When Ezekiel Elliott is full speed, Curtis isn’t playing [at tailback]. Zeke is pretty good.
SI: With offensive coordinator Tom Herman gone to Houston, you have a new quarterbacks coach—Tim Beck. He is being dropped into a difficult dynamic, with the three star quarterbacks in competition. What has that been like?
UM: I’m watching it closely, but I don’t want to micro-manage Tim. We lost a great coach in Tom Herman, who had a really great relationship with those guys. So, I’m watching it. This is not going to be his decision. It’s not fair. He is just going to coach his guys, and it’s going to have to be my decision.
SI: Obviously, that’s the magic question until you start the season. Who plays at quarterback? Where are you with that decision?
UM: I don’t want to say I’m ignoring it, but I’m ignoring it. The hardest thing is going to be that there are two people that have done a lot for me, our program, Ohio State. They’re going to be watching the other guy play, and that’s going to be hard. That’s the only negative of the situation. Because they get along, they push each other, they’re completely different. They’re not cookie-cutter quarterbacks. Cardale can’t be more different than J.T., more different than Braxton.
SI: I would imagine the most delicate situation involves Braxton, as he has started the most in his career, has won the most games and is also the most fragile, with two labrum injuries. Where is he mentally right now?
UM: I know Braxton probably better than anyone in this program, along with [strength coach] Mickey Marotti. He’s never been this way. His leadership, pushing each other, pushing himself, the attention to detail, because he was one of those guys his whole life he’s been better than everybody, so why does he have to work this hard? And we got him through that. Now he’s working harder than anybody. When you put that kind of work ethic now with the skill he has, it’s pretty good.
SI: Has Braxton improved as a vocal leader?
UM: He doesn’t have to be [a vocal leader]. I’m trying to think, Chris Leak was a very good leader that wasn’t vocal. He is, in his own way, doing a good job leading. J.T. is a vocal guy.
SI: When I was here in August, Marotti told me J.T. was one of the five best leaders on the team before he ever took a snap. Did you feel the same way?
UM: I didn’t see that, I wasn’t with him all summer. Tom would say that, and I’d say, “Come on now.” And, boy, did [Barrett] turn out to be that.
SI: As you try to repeat, what do you take from your experience at Florida in 2009, when you were trying to defend your championship entering Tebow’s senior year?
UM: Well, 2009 was a tough year. We went through a series of things throughout that whole year. You win by 14 against Tennessee, and I remember walking in [the press conference] and someone saying, “How do you get your team back from that performance?” Like, what are you talking about? I felt that throughout the team. We won 22 straight games, and I remember walking into a victory meal and a bunch of players didn’t go. And I looked at coach Mick and said, “What the hell is this?” It was all because of me. We took the joy out of winning and put too much fear into losing, and that happens. And I got to be careful.
SI: How do you approach that balance here?
UM: I don’t know. I’m trying to get the mechanisms in order because the question came up in SEC Media Days in ’09. “Coach, how does it feel knowing anything other than the undefeated national championship and you’re a failure?” I’m sure we’ll get the same question. Doesn’t mean I have to respond to it.
SI: Joey Bosa is probably the closest thing to a defining star in your program. What has his off-season been like?
UM: I’m watching him closely because I’ve had a couple defining stars, and if you don’t watch them closely they can be a pain in the rear end. His work ethic has been outstanding. His leadership, he’s pushing guys, pushing himself. He’s great, but I’m watching him every day.
SI: With Ezekiel Elliott, his last three games of the season were excellent. Yet he hasn’t practiced since then because of his wrist injury. How is he doing?
UM: The good thing about all the people you’re mentioning, with Zeke and the others, is that they have some very good families. He’s a great kid, 3.0 student. I want him to stay that same 3.0 student. And there are thousands of people out there that want to buy him a drink, and he’s a nice kid, and I’ve seen it.
SI: We haven’t talked yet about Cardale. Where is he mentally?
UM: You know, he’s a steady work in progress. He’s a 22-year-old man that once in a while reverts back to a 16-, 17-year-old mentality. He’s a genuine, great kid that has been interesting. This is psychology 101. There should be a chapter on Cardale Jones. His support back home is phenomenal, Ted Ginn, Michelle Nash, his mom, and it’s every day. Imagine having this conversation a year ago, two years ago. You’re going to have a crystal ball on this table and you’re going to put it to Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, and he’ll be your quarterback.
SI: Has he embraced taking a majority of the reps this spring?
UM: He’s doing good. J.T. is not just giving it up. J.T. is a very vocal guy. You watch practice, J.T. is in the middle of everything.
SI: How is J.T.’s recovery coming along?
UM: He can throw. He can’t run. So, he’s practicing. He can take a drop.
SI: How about Braxton’s recovery?
UM: He is in excellent shape, looks like a specimen. He still throws 20, 30%. Very light. They had him doing stuff and backed him off because they don’t want him to fall off or anything.
SI: Is there any talk of Braxton changing positions?
UM: No talk.
SI: I was told you’re going to need a bigger trophy case. First-world problem, huh?
UM: That was already our AD’s [Gene Smith's] idea.
SI: Any thoughts on the potential early signing period?
UM: I like the recruiting calendar the way it is. I just think you’re rushing, why rush it? Now they’re making decisions, 15- and 16-year-olds have to remember to brush their teeth in the morning and remember not to park where it says no parking.
SI: You were recruiting well before your wins in the Big Ten championship, the Sugar Bowl and the national title game. Have you seen any impact since then?
UM: Not yet. Maybe. We already have [eight] commitments [in the class of 2016]; we’re trying to slow it down. I’m not a fan of early commitments. I just think people right now are handcuffing players, pressuring players and I don’t want to do that. I want to watch them go play their senior year.
SI: What do you need to see out of this program in the spring?
UM: Just remember what got us here. Don’t all of a sudden be the stars. I worry about behavior because I’ve been down this road before, all of a sudden I’m the toast of High Street. No, you’re not. You’re a backup tailback that got a chance. You’re a third-string quarterback that got a chance. You’re not the toast. You live and you learn. That’s why I worry about Zeke. I love Zeke. He can join my family tomorrow. Great student, 3.0, great mom, great dad, two beautiful sisters, I just want him to be that same kid. I know how hard it is. It’s called the human element.
I think we’ll be fine offensively and defensively. Scheme-wise, I’m pushing them [to be] on the cutting edge. On offense, we have two new coaches who came from two great programs. On defense, I love our staff, we’re trying to do more stuff. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about the development of the young guys, and will we still be that same hungry team that showed up in New Orleans and then Dallas?