At a family reunion in Beaumont, Texas, last summer, J.T. Barrett was excited to tell anyone who would listen about his upcoming second season in the Ohio State football program. He was coach Urban Meyer’s first recruit at the position. He had learned from the habits of talented veterans while taking a redshirt the previous fall. He worked hard all offseason, and he planned to continue doing so during preseason camp. And that, Barrett told his family, might get him right where he wanted to be.
As the second-string quarterback.
So he could hold field goal attempts.
“Of course you got the uncle that tells you, ‘Hey man, Braxton ain’t all this, ain’t all that,’” Barrett says. “I’m like, you have no idea. You just see Saturdays. Braxton, he’s a baller. I was letting them know, hey, I’m trying to be realistic with myself.”
Braxton is Braxton Miller. He was the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year who was supposed to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback, taking every snap that mattered and leaving the extra points and mop-up duties to someone else. Then Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in August, which meant someone else became the only option the Buckeyes had to salvage a season defined by title aspirations. And that someone else was Joe Thomas Barrett, who now has a vastly different story to tell.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound redshirt freshman has done exactly what a backup is intended to do: He has saved everything. Barrett is the fourth-most efficient passer in the nation, pacing the country’s No. 4 scoring offense and keeping Ohio State’s playoff hopes alive entering a Saturday showdown with defending league champion Michigan State. The Spartans’ rock-crushing defense is, by far, the most imposing group Barrett has faced. Failure to solve it likely ruins championship dreams. But, then, what is there to lose for someone who wasn’t expected to be here?
“We’re all in it with him,” Ohio State wide receiver Evan Spencer says. “We really hoped for him to do as well can he can, but the success he’s having so far this year, I guess it’s a little bit of a bonus, if that makes sense.”
That part makes sense. The part in which Barrett leads the Big Ten in total offense (294 yards per game) and passer efficiency (170.0) while leading the nation in passing touchdown percentage (23 scoring tosses on 207 attempts, or 11.1 percent) -- all that doesn’t necessarily compute as cleanly. It most likely owes to Ohio State taking care not to overwhelm its first-time starter and instead going through the “baby steps” of preparing Barrett, as the quarterback puts it. The Texas native’s temperate personality helps defuse both pressure applied by defenses and expectations heaped upon a player in his position.
Barrett has a precocious comfort with everything the job entails. Therefore Ohio State is missing Miller, but not missing much. “I know Braxton and knew him prior to his days at Ohio State -- they’re very similar,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman says. “Both compete at a great level. J.T. has good touch on those intermediate routes, those 15-to-20 yard routes down the field, the flow routes that Urban has always run. He’s done a really good job putting it on the money when he needs to. He’s playing at a big level right now.”
“As an athlete I feel like Miller was better,” Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones says, “but … Barrett fits in that offense better and he can control the game better.”
at Penn State
W, 31-24 (2OT)
at Michigan State
This wasn’t exactly building from the ground up, given Barrett absorbed what he could from Miller and the departed Kenny Guiton last fall. But only the foundation existed in late August. So, Ohio State’s players attempted to install some support mechanisms fairly quickly. On the night of Miller’s injury, Spencer returned to the team hotel and made sure to send a text to the presumptive new starter before he went to bed. I love you, I completely trust you and I’m looking forward to what you’re going to do this season, the senior wideout recalls writing to Barrett.
Spencer was more certain of what would come next than the recipient of his message. “It was almost like a wind blowing across your face,” Barrett says. “Everything happened so fast.” Naturally, there was the matter of learning how to run the offense. Even more, there was learning how to be a starting quarterback beyond mastering protection calls and defensive schemes.
“Braxton, being a three-year starter, he has a routine,” Barrett says. “This is what he does on Tuesday practice, Wednesday practice, Thursday practice, Friday preparing for a game and then Saturday game day. Me? I didn’t have one. Because I didn’t play. It was almost building up a routine of, this is what it’s going to take so we can be successful at Ohio State on offense and also as a quarterback.”
Though Barrett didn’t view it as game-plan simplification, Meyer says what the offense was doing in August was “nothing close” to what it is doing in November. At the start, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman walked Barrett through every step along the way. It might have been extra film study after practice, or a verbal review of receiver routes or the opposing team’s third-down blitz packages. Barrett was never left to figure out anything alone, so he was never bewildered when he took the field on Saturdays. Now, according to Meyer, his quarterback has “the full capacity to run the entire offense.”
The confidence to do so enables Barrett to limit the doubts that lead to drive-killing or game-killing mistakes. “He’s getting us in right plays, he’s making sure he’s not really making errors in terms of where he places the ball against different coverages, and he’s really not making that many bad reads,” Spencer says. That would explain Barrett completing 69.2 percent of his passes during Ohio State’s current six-game win streak, in which he's also tossed 20 touchdowns against three interceptions. And if Barrett is confronted with confusion, he uses his athleticism as a failsafe.
“The one thing that he does well, even better than Braxton, is when something is not there, he puts his foot in the ground and gets us to second-and-four, second-and-five,” Meyer says. “I can count three or four times that happened (in a 55-14 win over Illinois). Those were not designed runs. But sometimes things don’t work out the way you envision them. Someone blitzes, someone flashes. Someone misses a block, someone peels. And he puts his foot in the ground.”
After throwing five interceptions in his first three games -- including three during a ghastly 9-of-29 showing in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, one of the most inexplicable losses for any team all year -- Barrett has achieved better balance. He completed 70 percent of his attempts in each of the three games after that defeat. When Penn State took the Buckeyes to overtime on Oct. 25, Barrett worked through a sprained knee to rush for two touchdowns in the extra periods. He cites the Virginia Tech loss as the motivation for that -- “We came together and decided, we’re not going to let this happen again,” Barrett says -- but more telling are his specific recollections of his emotions in that moment. He didn’t have any.
“It was really vanilla, really plain,” Barrett says. “I don’t know how to explain it. It was a subtle-type deal. There wasn’t a lot of thinking.”
It’s a milepost for any first-time starter to go numb to pressure when the pressure threatens to swallow you. A less discussed step is managing the notoriety that arrives after such a night, whenever it comes. That much, Barrett concedes, has been a bit weird. He hears people call him “J.T. Barrett,” and not just J.T., and his ears and mind haven’t yet adjusted to that quirk of celebrity. He remembers taking the elevator in his girlfriend’s dorm when recognition washed over a fellow passenger. The guy got quite excited. He said it was so cool to meet J.T. Barrett, and could he have a picture, and it was all a little breathless. “I’m just like, hey, my brother, it’s all good,” Barrett says. “You can talk to me like any other guy.”
In fact, when Barrett asked the tittering fan how he was and how his classes were going, the guy wasn’t quite sure what to do.
“He was almost shocked I asked him that,” Barrett says. “It took him aback. He was worried about taking a picture and showing his friends on Snapchat or something.”
Barrett’s normal existence ended in August. Nothing that happened after has gone as Barrett expected. That includes fielding questions about how he and Miller might coexist at the same position next year, after Meyer declared weeks ago that Miller would be the starter in 2015.
Barrett has gone from expecting to be the dutiful backup to producing at a high enough rate that there should be no expectations for that dynamic at all.
“Definitely don’t think about it,” Barrett says. “Right now, in the situation I’m in, it’s trying to win games here at Ohio State, play well as an offense, and then what that time comes, it comes. Then again, do I have a say in that? No. In spring ball or whenever it may be, it’s still trying to play my best and let coach Herman and coach Meyer have that on their shoulders because that’s what they’re paid to do.”
Should he solve Michigan State in East Lansing, the fledging Heisman Trophy chatter will spike. Ohio State will represent arguably the Big Ten’s best chance at a College Football Playoff berth. That wind in Barrett’s face will kick up, bracing and ceaseless, and he’ll move ahead trying to make sense of it all.