COLUMBUS DISPATCH/CHRIS RUSSELL Enlarge
COLUMBUS — The first sign J.T. Barrett’s life had changed was the update to his official Ohio State biography.
Before last week, no one knew or noticed his name — listed as John Thomas Barrett on the Buckeyes’ Web site — required a revision. Heck, even coach Urban Meyer fumbled, calling the redshirt freshman “J.T. Barnett” in his only reference to the then-backup at a recent news conference.
Barrett was fourth on the depth chart at quarterback last year and remained in waiting behind one of college football’s biggest stars this season.
Then, with one fateful throw by Braxton Miller last week, his world became overturned and the bio was fixed. Remember the name: Joe Thomas Barrett.
Miller’s season-ending injury vaulted Barrett from relative anonymity into perhaps the state’s most scrutinized role as the starting quarterback at Ohio State.
It is a wild rewrite of the script, the loss of the two-time Big Ten player of the year leading bookmakers and analysts to write off the fifth-ranked Buckeyes’ national title hopes. An offense that wiped out the school’s record books last year must now replace its electrifying quarterback, All-American running back (Carlos Hyde), leading receiver (Corey Brown), and four multiyear starters on the offensive line.
Yet, at the least, those close to Barrett say he will not be overwhelmed by the glare.
As an electronic billboard just off campus changed its message this week from, “Get Better No. 5,” to “Go Get ’Em No. 16,” a sense is growing that — if the anvil had to drop — the former four-star recruit from Wichita Falls, Texas, may be the right guy at the right time for Ohio State.
Whereas two years ago the Buckeyes needed their dynamic quarterback to carry an undermanned offense — Meyer said, “Braxton right, Braxton left,” sometimes seemed the only way to move the ball — they have since added some of the country’s most highly recruited playmakers. (Think nationally elite former track stars like Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall, and Curtis Samuel.) Barrett is cast as the ideal director, a calm, innate leader with a beautiful football mind coaches hope will evoke memories of former backup Kenny Guiton.
“Some of the best quarterbacks are great distributors,” Meyer said. “I watch Peyton Manning play and I'm in awe at the way he distributes the ball around. I thought Kenny Guiton was one of the best I've been around as far as getting the ball out quickly and distributing to playmakers and letting them run with the ball and make plays. My initial evaluation is J.T. is very good at that.”
Said senior tight end Jeff Heuerman: “I don't think you can pick anyone better in this situation than J.T. Barrett. Guys thought so highly of him and trusted him before this happened.“
Like at Rider High School, where coach Jim Garfield said it was “really neat to see even the big defensive linemen” hanging on Barrett’s every word before games, Barrett earned respect early in Columbus.
Barrett, rated by 247Sports.com as the top dual-threat quarterback in his class before tearing his ACL in October, 2012, was the only freshman on the team’s leadership council last season and walked the walk — if not literally. Coaches said Barrett devoured film as he recovered from the torn ACL. Now healthy, he wins every running drill among the quarterbacks.
The son of a career Army man and the product of the God-family-and-football culture of Texas, Barrett lives to lead Ohio State in a way Meyer wishes his other passers — Miller included — would follow.
Less than a month after Barrett enrolled early in January, 2013, Meyer noticed a difference in the quarterbacks room.
“I'm hoping he brings a little something that our quarterback position can use, and that's a grinder, a guy that's just nonstop," Meyer said at the time. “You know, a guy [like former Utah quarterback] Alex Smith — they wake up in the morning and they're a quarterback all day long.”
As for handling pressure, Garfield recalls a playoff game from Barrett’s sophomore season. Rider was locked in a close contest against El Paso Andress when the offense returned to the field after a turnover.
“I grabbed J.T. and said, ‘Look, man, we need to score right now and right here,’” Garfield said.
Barrett let it fly on the first play of the drive, then began jogging over to Garfield while the ball still hung in the air.
“He didn't see what had happened,” Garfield said. “He just said, ’How do you like that?’”
It was a touchdown, and Rider won running away. It is that feel that coaches say defines Barrett. If he does not have the freelancing ability of Miller or the bionic arm of 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore Cardale Jones — Barrett has a bigger arm than Guiton but is well behind Miller and Jones — Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he “makes up for that in his anticipation and his accuracy.”
Garfield said Barrett, who threw for 1,605 yards and ran for 1,521 as a junior at Rider, will be a natural in OSU’s spread-option.
“He just really understands the game,” he said. “He knows exactly how to read the blocks. That was one thing that came natural to him when we were working together. He knows how to set the blocks up and to run downhill. He doesn't run east and west.”
No one is suggesting Miller’s loss is not a devastating punch. Barrett lacks his athleticism and, just as important, experience. There is a reason only three freshman quarterbacks — Bernie Kosar, Jamelle Holieway, and Jameis Winston — have led their team to a national title. Yet for now, the only way for Ohio State to move forward is to believe Barrett is the right guy at the right time.
“It will be fun to watch,” Heuerman said. “This is a special year for J.T.”
MILLER RECOVERING: Miller underwent successful surgery on the torn labrum in his right shoulder Tuesday in Gulf Breeze, Fla. “All reports are there were no surprises and everything went well,” Meyer said.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
■ "I still have them favored in 11 of their 12 games, with the exception of the road trip to Michigan State. However, with Miller now out, the Buckeyes have four other games (Virginia Tech, Maryland, Penn State and Michigan) in which they will be a favorite by a touchdown or less." — Phil Steele.
■ “Overall, I'll say the Buckeyes end up 9-3 in the regular-season, which is still good, but obviously a lot different than it would've been with Miller running the show.” — Bruce Feldman, Fox Sports
■ “Without any question, this team’s wealth of skill talent, amazing defensive front, speed along the back seven and ever-increasing depth [still] makes it one of the two best teams in the conference.” — USA Today.