COLUMBUS, Ohio—The rest of the nation’s quarterback coaches must envy Ohio State’s Tim Beck. While most of them scrape to find one player capable of leading their offenses, Beck can walk into his meeting room and find three. Beck knows Braxton Miller can do it because Miller won two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards as the Buckeyes’ starter. Beck knows J.T. Barrett can do it because Barrett smashed Drew Brees’s Big Ten touchdown production record in fewer than 12 games last year. Beck knows Cardale Jones can do it because Jones went 3-0 in postseason games—including the national championship.
The rest of the nation’s quarterback coaches must also feel for Beck. While most of them will disappoint an inexperienced player or two when they pick a starter, Beck will eventually have to tell two quarterbacks who would start almost anywhere else that they have to watch while someone else leads the offense this fall.
Beck, who came to Columbus after seven years at Nebraska and took over for current Houston coach Tom Herman, has never experienced anything like this. It’s quite possible no one has. There have been quarterback competitions throughout college football history, but how many have featured three players, who, if they played on different teams, might all be Heisman Trophy contenders? Better yet, how many have featured acclaimed onetime starters who actually like one another and seem committed to making this awkward process go as smoothly as possible?
“You would think it would be cutthroat,” Beck said Thursday after Ohio State's second practice of the spring. “But it’s not.” That may sound like coachspeak, but it isn’t. “It’s awesome,” Beck said. “They love each other. They care about each other. They help each other. It’s an incredible dynamic I walked into. Really interesting.”
At some point this year Beck will have to experience a feeling that must be similar to what Bill Walsh felt in those offseasons when he faced a legitimate choice between Joe Montana and Steve Young. The offense can excel with any of these guys under center, but only one can start. The players themselves understand that better than anyone. "You’re talking about the quarterback position,” said Barrett, who went 11-1 as a starter in 2014 after replacing an injured Miller late in preseason camp. “There’s only going to be one guy who's going to get the snap each and every play.”
That guy this spring is redshirt junior Jones, who completed 61 percent of his passes for 742 yards with five touchdowns in Ohio State’s three most important games last season. Miller’s surgically repaired shoulder still needs more time to heal before he can throw at full velocity. Barrett’s surgically repaired ankle still needs more time to heal before he can run at full speed. That leaves Jones to take the first-team snaps and fourth-stringer Stephen Collier to take second-team reps. Jones doesn’t believe this provides too much of an advantage. After all, everyone in Columbus remembers Miller shredding Big Ten defenses in 2012 and ’13 and Barrett doing the same in ’14. Jones knows that until those two get healthy, he won’t know if he can outplay them.
Meanwhile, Jones continues to adjust to life as a famous person. He rocketed to stardom in less than a month, and he still can’t believe it happened to him. “I tell everybody it won't sink in until we get our national championship rings,” he said. “I’ll probably freak out for a couple weeks after that.” Life has almost returned to normal in Columbus, but Jones still notices the differences between how people viewed him pre- and post-playoff. “The way I get treated now is different,” he said. “Everyone knows you. The first week back at campus was wild. It's hard to pay attention in class for other students because everyone is staring me up and down.”
Jones, who openly admitted in January to knucklehead tendencies that nearly got him tossed off the team, understands the microscope under which he now lives. “It’s a lot more responsibility, being aware of my surroundings and understanding that any and everything is going to blow up,” Jones said. “It’s just watching myself more.”
Ohio State coaches are watching, too. They want to see if Jones can lead the way Barrett did before his injury. This dynamic is perhaps the most intriguing part of the whole competition. The program's choice of quarterback will also signal a choice of offense by coach Urban Meyer and co-coordinators Beck and Ed Warinner. Each of the three brings something different. Miller is the best pure athlete, a magician on the field with a quiet, understated locker-room presence. Barrett is Captain All-America, the guy who gave pep talks to the team in games he wasn’t playing in because of injury. Barrett isn’t as slippery a runner as Miller, and doesn’t have the arm strength of Jones, but he runs well enough and throws well enough that his intangibles could vault him into the job. Jones, meanwhile, has a bazooka hanging from his right shoulder. He won’t beat Miller or Barrett in a race, but he’ll probably gain more yards running between the tackles on third-and-short situations because he can drag linebackers who are smaller than he is.
In most discussions of a three-way quarterback competition, we wouldn’t get this far without using the T-word. These days, quarterbacks transfer when they don’t win a starting job. But all three Ohio State passers seem committed to sticking out this competition. Miller, the only one of the three who can graduate and play immediately at another school in 2015, elected not to speak to reporters Thursday. But Barrett minced no words when discussing the possibility of a Miller transfer. “I’m not Braxton, but being that I do talk to him every day, I think that would be something that me and you would both be shocked by if he was to leave,” Barrett said. “I think it’s ridiculous, honestly.”
Barrett is taking his time returning from a broken ankle suffered in a win over Michigan. He does not want to put too much strain on the surgically repaired area too early and aggravate the injury. "There’s not a date. It's basically how I feel,” Barrett said. "Everything went well as far as the surgery. Now I'm just rehabbing and getting the strength back in my leg so I’ll be able to run and do what I need to do.”
Later, Barrett addressed head-on the possibility that had only been hinted at previously. Even after he emerged as a fringe Heisman candidate as a redshirt freshman, he may have to watch someone else take snaps as a redshirt sophomore. “There’s going to be patience if I’m not the starter. Definitely patience,” Barrett said. “That’s not anything I’m afraid of, or something I don’t want to do. If I’m not the starter then obviously I'm not doing something right. I can always get better.”
Patience is advisable for everyone, because it’s likely this competition will drag into August and maybe September. Beck’s friends in the business keep asking what he’s going to do, and he tells them the truth. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said. “There’s so much going on right now. That’s way down the path.”
Still, it’s nearly impossible not to talk about one of the most fascinating quarterback competitions in the history of the sport. So talk we will—possibly until Barrett, Jones or Miller lines up for the first play of Ohio State’s 2015 season.