Joe Burrow might never appear in The Game, but Ohio State's redshirt junior quarterback can absolutely play The System.
By taking care of business in the classroom, he is set to graduate early and has the option to continue his career with the Buckeyes in the fall or transfer to another school and play immediately without sitting out a year.
Ah, the intrigue. Oh, the conundrum for coach Urban Meyer.
Before laying out the possibilities Burrow faces, a history lesson is in order. The NCAA graduate-transfer rule was established in 2007 to give students an opportunity to continue their athletic careers at a school that offers graduate and second-degree courses in an area of study not available at their current school. For example, Player A wants to continue grad work in marine biology where he attended undergrad, but the school does not offer it, so he transfers and gains immediate eligibility.
According to the NCAA, only one-half of 1 percent of all football players were grad transfers in 2016, but the number of cases increased from 17 in 2011 to 117 in 2016, which has prompted debate. The rule has come under scrutiny by critics who say its academic intent has been twisted for athletic purposes by opportunistic athletes and coaches who are fishing for graduated free agents.
I land on the other side of the argument. Graduated athletes deserve to pursue their options, having fulfilled their academic requirements, often with honors. Burrow, a scholar-athlete, is on pace to graduate in June with a degree in consumer and family financial services, having finished his undergraduate work in three years. Well done, achiever.
But Burrow’s ability to work the system to his advantage creates complications for Ohio State coaches as they determine whether he, redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins Jr. or — less likely — redshirt freshman Tate Martell gets to start the Sept. 1 season opener against Oregon State.
Scenarios to consider:
• Meyer meets with Burrow in the coming weeks and encourages him to remain at OSU, saying he understands the player’s frustration but cannot promise him a starting role because the competition is too close to call. It would pain Burrow to transfer — he said after the spring game on Saturday that leaving would devastate him — but he requires a stronger assurance of meaningful playing time and opts to leave, handing the starting job to Haskins, whose strengths include a strong and accurate passing arm as well as having rallied the Buckeyes to a win against Michigan last season. In this scenario, Ohio State enters the fall with no experienced backup, and Haskins must stay healthy.
• Burrow can transfer and play immediately. Haskins’ options are more limited. He can transfer but would need to sit out a year, which creates the interesting (and strategic) possibility of Meyer telling Burrow he would be the starter “if the season began today.” Meyer can justify Burrow as the better choice, based on leadership, running ability and the coach’s gut instinct. Plus, Haskins can still win the job back during fall camp. Meyer always considers team first, player a close but clear second. Burrow stays and maybe starts. Haskins isn’t sure what to think.
• Burrow learns later this spring he will be Haskins’ backup, but decides to stay anyway, knowing he is one injury or several poor performances from taking over as starter. A new school setting seems overly daunting. And will he really be promised a starting job elsewhere without going through that school’s spring practice? Plus, he can always transfer after the season and be able to play right away in 2019, still fitting within the five-year participation window set by the NCAA.
There's quite a bit riding on Burrow’s decision. I’m just glad he gets to make one.