COLUMBUS, Ohio—Few athletes have seen their lives change more over the course of a five-week period than Cardale Jones. He entered the 2014 season as Ohio State's third-string quarterback, behind Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. He ended it as a projected late first-round NFL draft pick.
Jones led the Buckeyes on a run to the national title with wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in his only career starts, vaulting him from anonymity to championship hero. The most surreal moment may have come when multiple national television outlets broadcast a January press conference in which Jones announced his return to Ohio State, a moment not even the most wide-eyed optimist could have imagined a few weeks earlier.
Now it’s back to business for Jones, who is the program's only healthy quarterback this spring. Miller is recovering from shoulder surgery, while Barrett is rehabbing from a broken ankle that continues to heal. Jones says he is using the extra practice reps to “separate myself from these guys.”
Jones sat down with SI.com after a recent practice for a wide-ranging chat that touched on everyone from LeBron James to Urban Meyer. He mentioned why it irks him to see his jersey for sale, how he gets along with Barrett and Miller and why he would prefer if classmates didn’t look at him in sign language class.
SI: You’ve got a White House visit coming up in a few weeks. How excited are you?
Cardale Jones: Yeah, I’m excited. Definitely one of the things I’m looking forward to. I don’t know if I appreciate winning that national championship more or meeting the president.
SI: I know LeBron was around the team when you won the national title. Have you gotten to know him a little bit?
CJ: Not so much getting to know him personally, but his agent, Rich Paul, is from our neighborhood [the Glenville neighborhood in Cleveland], so I’ve had a relationship with him, and I’ve been close with him but just getting closer.
SI: How has your life changed since the Wisconsin game?
CJ: A lot. Just understanding my role and understanding the impact I have on other people. Just wanting to do more outside of football to impact people.
SI: What have you done?
CJ: A lot of giving back—community service, things like that for people to see my face. It brightens their day. Helping out volunteering at the Meals on Wheels. Going to read at schools here. Going back to Cleveland and seeing my old teachers and then hanging in classrooms to see how kids react.
SI: Have you had a chance to take a breath?
CJ: Not really, and there’s not time really we could take a breath. We’re right back into spring ball, and it happened so fast, getting ready for next year.
SI: Has it all sunk in yet?
CJ: It has, but it hasn’t until we get the rings.
SI: How did you celebrate?
CJ: I was back in Cleveland the next day, went back to class that following week. I just remember after the game—I mean we got back to our hotel so late and our hotel was packed with fans, cheering all night and the whole time with my family. And my daughter’s mom was there, so it was a pretty special moment. It was just a special moment to have all the people that were there after winning a national championship that were there when I was really not starting, after games going back to my dorm disappointed, stuff like that.
SI: Your daughter, Chloe, was born in November. Has fatherhood changed you?
CJ: Everything you do now, you’re doing it for a bigger purpose. Gives you that, I don’t know, something I guess all great dads have. Wanting to protect your kid, wanting what’s best for them, have them have what you didn’t.
SI: Your press conference at Ginn Academy to announce your return to Ohio State became polarizing. Did that surprise you?
CJ: I mean, sort of. When I make a decision that’s thought out and isn’t just going to benefit me but the people around me, I don’t really think of the negative that’s coming behind it because I thought of all of it before making that decision.
SI: You didn’t want to hold a press conference, did you?
CJ: No, I didn’t. I really didn’t think it was a big deal.
SI: Shortly after beating Oregon to win the title, you visited your uncle in the hospice. Will you walk me through those 24 hours?
CJ: That was one of the reasons I didn’t get to celebrate the national championship further that night, having to go back to Cleveland, dealing with a life-changing decision and the illness of my uncle. It was tough.
SI: What has your on-campus life been like since winning the title?
CJ: It was tough the first couple weeks of class. Everybody was just so fascinated I was in the classroom, and I actually had to complain to the teacher, like everyone staring at me 24/7 in class, guys tapping on the window trying to get my attention and stuff like that, and it’s kind of distracting. Somebody complained to the teacher I was distracting in class. Not so much complained, but told her, you know, I was a distraction, things like that.
SI: What class?
CJ: Sign language. You’ve actually got to look at the teacher (laughs), and everyone is looking at me.
CJ: This is my third one. It’s my last semester of a foreign language.
SI: I can’t imagine too many agents were recruiting you in October. What was that onslaught like? You didn’t have much time to make a decision to declare or come back.
CJ: I had like two days to decide. My phone was nonstop ringing, and I was wondering, ‘How did everybody get this number?’ Like I said before, I mean that decision was already tough and trying to decide on things like that, still be with my family in a time of need, answering every phone call and text message, trying to be respectful. It came out of the woodwork, out of nowhere, and I’m wondering how everyone got that number.
SI: How many reached out to you?
CJ: Maybe about 10 different guys in two days.
SI: Have you changed your approach to social media?
CJ: I still just have my Twitter, Instagram, got into Snapchat but not really. Still don’t understand it. Just really watching what I tweet, and every once in a while search my name in the Twitter bar to see what people [are] saying about me. Just being cautious because once I put it out there, it’s not coming back.
SI: Let’s talk a little football. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Parris Campbell looks great in practice. Is he a guy who will emerge this year?
CJ: Very fast guy. Physical. He has a frame you can put weight on and is one of the fastest guys on the team.
SI: The receiving talent has to be the best since you’ve been on campus, right?
CJ: I’d agree with you. Definitely.
SI: You looked like a truck out there in practice. What’s your weight?
CJ: I’m around 250. Probably drop in the season to play at 240.
SI: How valuable has it been for you to get all the reps this spring and really master the offense?
CJ: Very valuable, getting time with these young guys emerging, who will be a part of the program, big part of the offense, having that understanding of what they go do. All that timing will roll over into off-season workouts in the summer and into camp and hopefully it helps me with the quarterback battle.
SI: Now that you are here instead of training for the NFL draft, do you have any regrets about coming back?
CJ: No regrets. One of the greatest pieces of advice I had from someone—I don’t want to say who it was—but he told me no matter what I do, if I decide to go to the NFL, be all in. If I go back to school, be all in and try to be the best and win the starting spot. And then worry about the NFL next year. Don’t go back to school and say, "Oh, I should’ve left." Or don’t go to the NFL and say, "Oh, I should’ve stayed in school another year."
SI: One issue that has come up recently is the potential of players being able to profit off their names and likenesses. What are your thoughts on being prevented from making money off your image?
CJ: Now that I’m in that position, it sucks. You can’t go in a sporting goods store without seeing a No. 12 jersey. Definitely, when you see the 12-Gauge shirts in stores and you don’t get to do anything or receive anything for it.
SI: Should the NCAA change its stance?
CJ: Personally, I think they should change it. But I do see where there would be a problem. How much are you supposed to give a guy for certain things? Or [what] if a guy’s jersey is not as popular as another? I see where the problem would be, but I do think athletes should get paid for some of the things they use.
SI: With former coordinator Tom Herman taking the Houston job, what has it been like developing a relationship with new quarterbacks coach Tim Beck?
CJ: It’s hard, and I’m not a relationship guy as soon as I’m going to meet you, like, "We’re going to be best of friends." Like coach Meyer, he had to talk to me and coach Beck about how me and coach Herman developed over two and a half years before it got to the point where coach Meyer admired our relationship. I don’t have that time with coach Beck. He’s a great guy, a great coach from my understanding so far, but we have to speed up the process. That’s mainly on me.
SI: How has your relationship with coach Meyer changed?
CJ: He’s being on me more. He’s holding me more accountable. And that’s the type of responsibility you want to have anyway.
SI: How much did it mean that coach Meyer went to Ginn Academy to meet with you before you made your decision to come back?
CJ: It meant a lot because it really showed he wanted me to stay and not just to benefit him or the team, but myself, getting ready for another year instead of out of nowhere, being projected late first, early second round. Try to be a top pick.
SI: Do you see yourself staying here after this season?
CJ: Oh, damn, I got two years [of eligibility] left. (Laughs hard, like he had forgotten.) That’s funny. It depends on how everything plays out.
SI: How often do you get asked about the quarterback situation?
CJ: A lot. I guess guys think me, J.T. and Braxton are the worst enemies in the world, and it’s so weird because we’re not. I guess people can’t comprehend that.
SI: Nobody has any clue what’s going to happen, right?
CJ: Nobody. I’m just trying to do the best I can to attempt to separate myself from these guys because they’re not [practicing]. I am. We have no clue what’s going to happen.
SI: Are you and J.T. still close?
CJ: Yeah, and it’s mostly Braxton, behind-the-scenes type of guy, all of us are still pretty close.
SI: What's your mindset right now?
CJ: Trying to separate myself in the spring ball, trying to get better.
SI: Is it hard to be normal here?
CJ: Yeah. I don’t go to the mall on weekends anymore, try to go on off days like Mondays or Tuesdays. It’s little stuff like that, try to avoid so much of the attention. Wherever I’m at, I take every single picture no matter who asks me. Sometimes it gets tiring and you want to get in and go out. I don’t go out, I don’t smoke or drink or anything like that, but we go out as a team and that gets annoying because everybody wants to stop and take pictures and I don’t want to be that guy.
GALLERY: BIG TEN PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2015
Big Ten players to watch in 2015
Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB
The most compelling storyline of the college football offseason centered on who would win Ohio State's starting quarterback job. With Braxton Miller moving to h-back, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will compete for the right to run the Buckeyes' first-team offense. Jones led Ohio State to a national title, but Barrett flashed immense potential during the regular season.
Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State DE
Calhoun enters his final season as one of the lynchpins of Michigan State's stellar defense. The defensive lineman is a menace in the backfield as evidenced by his eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2014.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin RB
Clement ran for over six yards per carry and nine touchdowns last season when spelling for Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon. With Gordon off to the NFL, Clement is set up to become the latest in the long line of successful Wisconsin running backs.
Joey Bosa, Ohio State DE
Bosa was an integral part of the Ohio State defense that limited Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and shut out Wisconsin. The rising junior has 21 sacks in two seasons, and his knack for forcing fumbles coming off the edge continues to make him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State QB
Hackenberg struggled last season in his first year under James Franklin and behind a shaky offensive. But the Nittany Lions' signal caller shined when he started as a true freshman, and another year under Franklin's tutelage in addition to much needed improvements in protection should help to bring out the talent in the former five-star recruit.
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State RB
Elliott was last seen bowling over Oregon defenders in a dominant performance in Ohio State's national championship win. The rising junior ran for over 200 yards in each of the Buckeyes' last three games of 2014, and he could reach 2,000 yards this year if Meyer goes to him early and often.
Connor Cook, Michigan State QB
Cook has helped the Spartans go 23-3 over the last two season, including wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl. He likely would have been the No. 3 quarterback in this year's draft class. Instead Cook's return to East Lansing makes Michigan State the biggest threat to Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
Darron Lee, Ohio State LB
Lee returned from an injury that ended his freshman season to become a vital part of the Buckeyes' defense last year. His athleticism made him a threat in coverage or in the backfield, and the young linebacker isn't afraid to hit either.
Anthony Zettel, Penn State DT
Zettel returns to Happy Valley for another season despite drawing the attention of NFL scouts with his play in 2014. The defensive lineman recorded eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. His ability to wreak havoc in the backfield will be key in a conference loaded with talent at quarterback and running back.
Taylor Decker, Ohio State OT
Decker is an absolute load along the offensive line for the Buckeyes. He not only paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott's late-season exploits, but he was also able to keep all three of Ohio State's quarterbacks relatively clean in the pocket. Decker's dominance on the line should help the Buckeyes' high-powered offense continue to shine this fall.