With Braxton Miller announcing his to return to Ohio State, the Buckeyes now have three of college football’s best-available quarterbacks—Miller, J.T. Barrett, and Cardale Jones—all with big-game experience and all finally healthy. Now, the question that has been looming since their national championship can finally be asked: Who is going to start under center?
Before you can answer that, you have to understand the candidates in order to comprehend just how difficult—and probably meaningless—of a decision this is going to be.
Miller is in the discussion because for two seasons—2012 and 2013—he wasn’t just the starting quarterback, he was the Ohio State offense. For those two seasons, Miller was the greatest dual-threat quarterback not named Marcus Mariota. In 2012, he racked up 3,310 yards of total offense and threw for 15 touchdowns and ran for 13 more. He followed that up in 2013 by tossing 24 touchdowns and running for 12, compiling 3,162 yards of total offense in the process.
What made Miller such a threat was his ability to find any receiver in-stride within 30 yards and his elite vertical speed, making option runs and planned quarterback draws a staple of the Buckeye offense. Miller snagged the Offensive Big Ten Player of the Year award in both seasons and seemed poised to do it again before succumbing to a preseason shoulder injury last fall.
When healthy, Braxton Miller is the single most exciting player in college football. He is faster than everyone else, has some of the most amazing open-field cuts and jukes of any quarterback in college football history, and can turn broken plays into spectacular ones. “When healthy” is a key caveat, though.
Miller’s always-redlined style of play takes a toll on his body, and because he is such a threat on the ground, he gets sacked much more than he should. Miller, like Cam Newton has at the pro-level, will need to adjust his game so that he can limit the kind of hits he takes and how often he takes them. If he can manage that, Miller could very well earn, and keep, the starting role.
Cardale Jones was my favorite football player of the entire 2014-15 season. I don’t care that he only played significant time in three games, because he made those games some of the best of the year. Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 249 pounds, Jones is a linebacker who can plow through defenders in the middle of the field and happens to be able to drop 70-yard bombs off his back foot.
Jones is probably best-known for his Jerome Bettis impersonation, but don’t sleep on his arm. That’s the weapon Jones unleashed against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game for 257 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Everybody thought the Badgers would spoil the Buckeyes’ season, but Jones came out and lit their asses up.
I mean, honestly, look at this throw:
It’s hard to imagine another quarterback in college football making that play. Notice how Jones doesn’t even get to step into the throw due to the defensive lineman running up in his face. He’s strong enough to stand there, take the hit, and drop a 50-yard dime over the shoulder of Devin Smith.
Skilled in the pocket and punishing in the open field, Jones is very, very different from Miller and Barrett. Unlike his teammates, Jones is not going to burn past an entire defense when he leaves the pocket, but he’s bigger and faster than most linebackers and not many defensive players have are equipped to deal with him one-on-one. Alabama was supposed to have the greatest defense in the country, and Jones threw for 243 yards and ran through those bums for 43 more, giving them all kinds of problems that they couldn’t handle while making them look small and weak.
The biggest thing hurting Jones’s shot at the starting gig is small sample size. It’s tough to argue against him, since he beat three top-15 teams in his only three starts, but we still don’t know if he can dominate throughout an entire season. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Jones was a no-shit NFL prospect after just three starts in college. Who knows what could happen if he gets unleashed for 14 games.
Jones, ironically, also boasts one of the strongest Twitter games in all of college sports, and if you don’t follow him, you probably should.
J.T. Barrett was on nobody’s radar at the start of last season, and why should he have been? The Buckeyes had a clear starter, and Barrett was a redshirt freshman who would hopefully take the reigns a year or two down the road. Then Miller went down, Barrett was named The Guy, and everyone found out about him in a hurry.
Barrett doesn’t have the same velocity on his mid-range balls as Miller, nor does he have the strength to bomb it like Jones. He also (understandably) struggled with accuracy at times, tossing three interceptions against Virginia Tech and two against Penn State and Indiana, totaling 10 through 12 games. But he managed to counteract those negatives by throwing a mind-boggling 34 touchdowns despite missing the final three games. This was good enough to place him sixth among all college football quarterbacks in total passing touchdowns, and he did so while throwing 131 fewer pass attempts than anyone in the top five.
It’s easy to compare Barrett and Miller due to their similar body types and top-level speed, but it doesn’t really hold up once you watch them in action. While Barrett is a better long-term answer at quarterback given the season he just had as a redshirt freshman, Miller will always be the more explosive player.
Miller has the ability to absolutely dominate a game, to take off at any moment from anywhere on the field and score simply because he was bigger and faster than anyone after he broke past the second level. Barrett is a playmaker and an excellent quarterback, but he’s not Miller, who is an otherworldly athlete who just happens to play quarterback. That’s why it’s not totally surprising that there’s been talk of Miller switching to wide receiver this season. Plays like this—and there are plenty more of them to watch—make it hard to argue against lining the guy up out wide:
So, who should start? The honest-to-God answer is that it doesn’t matter. All three can snatch the league and a spot in the playoff, and they’re all fun as hell to watch on the field. There’s no doubt this will be The Storyline pumped by every news outlet during the preseason, but I don’t care who Ohio State announces as it starter because no matter who it is, they’ll win.
Jones is my favorite, but that’s just because he’s a great quote and I love watching him sling the rock like a human trebuchet. Miller will likely earn the nod just because he’s the more singular talent, but that could all change depending on his health and the Buckeyes’ decision on where to play him. Again, it really doesn’t matter who starts—with Ezekial Elliot in the backfield, a deep and talented receiving corps, and three possible Heisman-level quarterbacks, the Buckeyes are going to be a big problem for the rest of the NCAA.