Playing two quarterbacks has merit for Ohio State

Could playing two quarterbacks regularly this season work for Ohio State?

Maybe the best answer at this point is, “Why not?”

Initially I doubted we would see it (barring injury), but a lot of the rhetoric seems to be pointing in that direction. Well, the chatter from the coaches, at least, as Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner both talked up some of the potential positives of using both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones rather than picking one with which to sink or swim. That comes a couple of weeks after Barrett and Jones both expressed some misgivings about a two-quarterback system, though one got the impression from both they would go along with whatever they were asked to do.

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and daughter at media day
Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and daughter at media day

The quarterbacks both made good points, too, as far as being able to get in a rhythm and play through mistakes. I certainly think that is valid. Does it trump the possibility of getting more of the good than the bad out of each of them, though? I don’t think we can answer that definitively.

And while I don’t think they should play both simply as a way to avoid hurting feelings, I am starting to see how it could work.

The bottom line is hardly anything that has happened before compares to this situation. Almost no quarterback battle includes two players who have actually performed well and won on the big stage. What Meyer and Warinner and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck are making isn’t an educated guess like it is when trying to choose between two guys who have only done it in practice, which is a poor substitute for games, and that is great for piece of mind if not for drawing distinctions between the two.

Entering the preseason, my feeling was it was Jones’ job to lose. He is the better player physically, and talent generally trumps all in college football. That said, he’s lost the job before and Barrett is no slouch physically. If Jones was able to raise his level of play to a certain consistency, he can do more things than Barrett at his best. If either of them made too many mistakes in camp, then the other would be an easy choice.

Not only does talent matter to me, more importantly I think that’s how Urban Meyer thinks, too. He loves grinders, but he knows a room full of motivated five- and four-star players will beat the hardest-working three- and four-star group pretty much every time.

He loves leadership, too, but it boils down to this: Is Barrett’s edge in leadership and consistency (which is actually overrated if you break down his play against the better teams on the schedule) greater than Jones’ physical advantages? Based on the talk out of camp, that is sounding like a push so far, so maybe they really don’t have to choose.

Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett at media day in Columbus
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett at media day in Columbus

If they both bring a lot of positives and relatively few, if any, true deficiencies, then maybe playing both really is the answer if they have they and more importantly the team have the personality to navigate the potential land mines along the way.

For all the talk about what one might do better than the other, Meyer pointed out the offense doesn’t really change with either of them at the controls. That is not a small point. While Barrett is probably better at making decision in the read-option, the fact remains that is a constraint play, not truly the point of the spear (that would be the inside run game). Jones is enough of a running threat he has to be respected and that is all that’s really necessary there. Along those same lines, Jones’ big arm gives defenses something to think about, but Barrett throws deep well enough conceding those throws isn’t really an appealing option for a defensive coordinator, either.

Playing both is a calculated risk, but so is only playing one if we’re being honest. Dismissing such an idea outright is fairly ignorant regardless of what has happened in the past. But I’m not sure past examples fit very well anyway.

In this job it is important to be skeptical but also to avoid being cynical. Just because something hasn’t worked in the past doesn’t mean it can’t this year, especially considering this year is not much like the last couple of times a very good Ohio State team played two quarterbacks for the balance of the season.

For one thing, this team is almost certainly better than those others, and it is also blessed with a quarterback-friendly offense built to operate similarly regardless of who is at the controls.

In 1993, highly touted sophomore Bobby Hoying sharing the load with transfer Bret Powers seemed to improve the overall quarterback play given that Hoying had to play through some struggles a year later when Powers was gone and did not really come into his own as an elite college quarterback until 1995.

In 1996 as in ’93, Ohio State won the Big Ten while using two new and previously unproven quarterbacks, in this case Stanley Jackson and transfer Joe Germaine. Unlike Jones and Barrett (or Hoying and Powers), Germaine and Jackson were fairly different players as one was the pocket QB and the other a dual-threat who was probably in all honesty born too early. Jackson did what he could within the confines of the typical “pro-style” offense of the day, but there were times Germaine’s precision passing was more what the doctor ordered. As good as Germaine’s arm and decision making were, Jackson’s talents were too tantalizing to leave on the bench in the view of coach John Cooper and his staff.

It worked pretty well all year with the exception one game. That was, of course, The Game, but using that 13-9 loss to call the whole experiment a failure is at best an oversimplification for several reasons: 1. It’s one game so it’s obviously a small sample size, 2. It’s one game in which Cooper’s teams played poorly almost every year for more than a decade regardless of who was taking the snaps, 3. It’s one game in which the roles were reversed as Germaine started instead of relieving Jackson. Ohio State was 11-0 when Jackson started and Germaine came in later, and going back to that formula worked pretty  well in the next game as Ohio State upset Arizona State in the Rose Bowl with Jackson leading a TD drive early and Germaine leading one late. It was also fine when Germaine threw the winning touchdown pass in a 17-14 comeback victory against Wisconsin earlier in the year, not to mention blowouts of top five Notre Dame and Penn State teams earlier in the year.

Of course saying it’s only one game is at least a bit of a copout because in college football — then more than now, as we saw last year — all it takes is one game to ruin a season. But over two seasons of using two quarterbacks the Buckeyes lost four games and won 21. The 1996 Michigan game was the only one that wasn’t against a team ranked in the nation’s top four (Yes, Ohio State used to play ranked teams a lot if you can believe that). It’s hard to imagine anyone standing up to the Florida State pass rush in the Jan. 1, 1998, Sugar Bowl loss, and Germaine had one of the best passing days ever when Ohio State lost at Penn State in ’97 mostly because the run defense completely collapsed in the second half.

We already covered the win over No. 2 Arizona State, which leaves only the ’97 Michigan game. That one was admittedly there for the taking by the Buckeyes as both quarterbacks struggled but nonetheless was on the road against the undefeated, No. 1-ranked team in the country. Usually the undefeated, No. 1-ranked teams win those ones.

Would that day have turned out differently if Jackson or Germaine had been declared The Man at quarterback earlier? Maybe, but quarterbacks who aren’t sharing time sometimes have bad days, too.

Germaine had one of the best single seasons in Ohio State history in 1998, but Germaine as a senior was probably better than the earlier versions, and he definitely had the best supporting cast that year.

Maybe this is all moot because Meyer plans to pick one guy and stick with him for a reasonably long amount of time before struggles could convince the coach to make a change, but it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

After an unprecedented run to the national championship last year, could Ohio State attempt to repeat with another unorthodox quarterback situation? We’ll see….

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