After incredible run to national title, Ohio State prepares for new reality
DALLAS -- Urban Meyer's victory lap press conference on Tuesday began with queries about whether his quarterback -- with all of three career starts -- would declare for the 2015 NFL draft this week, about how Ohio State might handle a quarterback derby with three accomplished participants and about whether the Buckeyes could repeat as national champs.
"Tough questions, man," Meyer said with a smile. "We just won a championship."
That's precisely why it's so difficult to repeat, especially with a team that might have arrived at a championship level a year early. Almost immediately, the questions begin. The beast must be fed, even though the first game of the next season is more than seven months away. Meyer knows this better than anyone. After his Florida team won the 2008 national title, the Gators seemed primed to repeat in ’09. They fell short, losing to eventual champ Alabama in the SEC title game. The stress of that season culminated in a trip to the hospital for Meyer the night of the Alabama loss and a resignation -- quickly rescinded -- a few days later.
Meyer made a great point the day before his Buckeyes whipped Oregon 42-20 to win the 2014 crown. "We talk quite often about when you have that opportunity to step into the batter's box you get one swing. You step into a prize fight you get one swing," Meyer said. "The great champions don't miss." The experienced champions also know that the next swing may never come.
Meyer seemed at peace with that on Tuesday. We'll see how he responds if his team drops a game next October or November, but his wife, Shelley, said last week that he has thus far not responded to losses at Ohio State in the unhealthy way he responded to them at Florida. Sure, Meyer still works long hours after losses. But when he comes home, he sleeps. He didn't do that at Florida. "He didn't go two feet down in the tank," Shelley said.
Just as he did at Florida in 2009, Meyer loses a few key pieces but still returns a loaded roster. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott, who averaged 232 yards a game in Ohio State's final three wins, will be back. So will left tackle Taylor Decker, quarterback hunter Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, who played nose tackle this year but should slide to his more natural position of three technique next season. So will linebacker Darren Lee, who played at his best in Ohio State's biggest games. So will three experienced passers. (Maybe. We'll address that in two paragraphs.)
The bottom line is the Buckeyes bring back a talented core with championship experience that could get even better with another offseason. “Frightening. Frightening," outgoing Buckeyes receiver Evan Spencer said in the locker room early Tuesday morning. "Because we’re pretty damn good now.”
So good, in fact, that they have three quarterbacks who could probably start anywhere. Cardale Jones, a redshirt sophomore, started the Big Ten title game, the Sugar Bowl and the national title game, but entered preseason camp as a third-stringer. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett nearly played his way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, but started camp as the backup. Braxton Miller was named the Big Ten offensive player of the year in 2012 and ’13, but didn't play a down this season because he suffered a shoulder injury in August.
Let's address each quarterback by degree of certainty. Barrett will return and, despite breaking his ankle on Nov. 29, plans to compete for the job. He told SI's Pete Thamel as much in the locker room early Tuesday morning. "I'm not leaving," Barrett said. "I don't think Braxton is leaving. I don't think Cardale is leaving."
Barrett is almost certainly correct about Jones. Though it made for a fun idea to think a relatively inexperienced quarterback could ride the wave of a championship run into the draft, Jones requires a lot of work to polish his considerable (but raw) natural gifts. He could be torn apart by the draft process now. That might be different in a year. Judging by the way he cracked up when Meyer mentioned his name and the NFL in the same sentence on Tuesday, Jones knows this. So, it’d be shocking if he declared for the draft before Thursday's deadline.
"It's very odd," Jones said. "I'm going to be starting three games in three years, and guys play their whole career to have that build up and have that motivation to play in the NFL. In my personal opinion, I'm not ready for that level yet. I mean, like coach Meyer said, it's a conversation me and him will have later down the road. But to me right now, it's far out."
Miller has the most complicated situation. He picked up his bachelor's degree last month, meaning unlike Barrett or Jones, he could transfer and play immediately at another school. But Miller remains in the midst of a long rehab on his throwing shoulder and likely won't throw during spring practice. Another school would have to take him with the faith that he could pick up the offense and win the starting job over the summer and in preseason camp. Miller hasn't made a decision yet, and even if he had, it still might be impossible to handicap the race to be Ohio State's starting quarterback in 2015.
So, the questions will fly until the quarterbacks or Meyer can provide some clarity. Meanwhile, Ohio State will transition from a 2014 underdog to the favorite for the ’15 title. New pressures will emerge, and the Buckeyes will have to prove they can handle them as adeptly as they did the adversity of the ’14 campaign. But they don't need to worry about that right this second. "I've got a bunch of really good players," Meyer said. "I love our coaching staff. The word repeat, we'll have that conversation, certainly not today. It's about enjoying it."
The Buckeyes took their swing. They didn't miss. Now it's time to celebrate. The answers for 2015 will come eventually, including the one to the question about whether they will get another swing.