We all hear it. Probably even say it. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett has regressed significantly since dazzling college football during the 2014 national championship season.
But is it true? I went to find out, not by trusting my memory but by comparing video of Barrett in 2014 with this season.
The analysis process was not perfect. I could not get inside the head of coach Urban Meyer, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson or former offensive coordinator Tom Herman to learn if what I watched was planned or improvised. Coordinating an offense does not happen in a vacuum. The opposing defense doesn’t just show up and say, “Do whatever you like.”
Also, my office has a distracting window. Unlike coaches in their film bunkers (who probably still wonder when the United States will capture Osama bin Laden), I notice the fall leaves when I should be focused on Barrett video. Did I miss something? Probably.
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I scanned most of the games from 2014 but concentrated on Kent State, to see how Barrett rebounded from the loss to Virginia Tech; Rutgers, in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Scarlet Knights; Minnesota, which was played in light snow and freezing temperatures; and Michigan State, which I graded as Barrett’s best performance, given the quality of opponent and what was at stake. Then came this season. I re-watched the opener at Indiana, the loss to Oklahoma and the win against Army. Note: I chose not to research games from 2015 and ’16, wanting the contrast between '14 and '17 to be as stark as possible.
Turns out it was not so stark. To answer the initial question, Barrett in 2014 was only slightly better than what he has been so far in 2017. But it is those small variances, combined with other distinctions between the Herman and Wilson offenses, that concern Buckeye Nation.
Everyone take a breath. In reviewing 2014, it struck me how much OSU’s offense improved after September — not so much in its wow factor but in efficiency and execution, especially the offensive line. There remains plenty of time for Barrett and these Buckeyes to get up to speed. They already took a step forward against UNLV last Saturday.
Now for the film. Most of the darts being thrown at Barrett hit the target, but not the bull’s-eye. Again, it should be noted that Barrett’s game has not changed significantly since 2014, for better or worse. His downfield accuracy is not horrific, but more hit-and-miss than desired. He remains a strong runner and effective distributor who makes smart decisions.
But the devil is in his details. Barrett was slightly more patient as a passer in 2014, specifically in going through his progressions, likely because his offensive line was better. His receivers also were better, although less so than memory served. Devin Smith dropped balls. So did Michael Thomas. Amazing, I know.
When needed, Barrett also got the ball out more quickly. What has changed? Play-calling. Herman’s 2014 downfield offense relied more on short slants and quick outs than the current midrange routes that force Barrett to wait an extra half-second. Defenses have adjusted, but the middle underneath remains open.
The Buckeyes also seem to have traded the creativity that distinguished the run/pass combo in 2014 for a flurry of swing passes and bubble screens that target the line of scrimmage. Those hit dead ends against faster defenses.
Also in 2014, Barrett seemed more comfortable sprinting out than throwing from the pocket, which remains the case. And in Wilson’s offense, receivers post up more than in they did in 2014, when Barrett hit them on the run. Barrett also had Jalin Marshall — I had forgotten how good he was — Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel at his disposal. So far, only Parris Campbell can match their quick-strike abilities.
Oh, and it matters that 2014 tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett were significantly ahead of where Marcus Baugh is today.
As for Barrett’s struggles to hit the deep ball, well, he overthrew receivers in 2014, too, so nothing new there. But the Buckeyes were more successful with their vertical passing game in 2014 in part because they attempted more deep balls, completing them or not. You can’t catch what isn’t thrown.
There also is the thought that running back Ezekiel Elliott made Barrett better, but tailback J.K. Dobbins is doing even more than Zeke did in 2014, not counting the Big Ten championship game and College Football Playoff. If anything, Dobbins needs to be targeted more as a receiver.
I’ll end with this: Want a better Barrett? Creatively get the ball to the playmakers. In 2014, Ohio State direct snapped to Marshall, threw to Elliott in the flat and ran effective play-action and option, which created wider passing windows.
Barrett will make some funky throws, but the 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate remains hidden in there somewhere. It’s up to the coaches to retrieve him. They have until Oct. 28, when Penn State comes to town.
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