If things are truly clicking for a major program, a moment like Saturday — the changing of the guard at quarterback for Ohio State — comes around only every three years or so.
They are the era markers. Just looking back to the late 1960s, the major mileposts read Rex Kern, Cornelius Greene, Art Schlichter, Mike Tomczak, Jim Karsatos, Greg Frey, Bob Hoying, Stanley Jackson-Joe Germaine, Craig Krenzel, Troy Smith, Terrelle Pryor, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett-Cardale Jones. All left their mark in some fashion, like Kern, Krenzel and Barrett-Jones with national championships, and Smith with a Heisman Trophy.
What they had in common was having the steering wheel placed in their hands, something third-year sophomore Dwayne Haskins Jr. will experience Saturday, Yes, he did rally the team to victory at Michigan last year after Barrett limped off, but this is different.
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Now he is the Ohio State starting quarterback.
“The first thing that went through my mind when that happened? ‘It’s about damn time,’” Krenzel said, laughing, as he recalled Jim Tressel naming him the starter headed to the 2001 game at Michigan. “No, it’s one of those things, when you have the opportunity to play at a place like Ohio State, that’s the moment you’re hoping for.
“But for me it wasn’t, ‘OK, I’ve been named the starter. I’m done.’ It was, ‘All right, what’s next? I’ve got to run with this opportunity.’ Especially at first, there were no butterflies, no nervousness. I just knew I had a ton of preparation for the game to go out and give my teammates the best play I could give them at the quarterback position to help win a football game.”
Ryan Day, Ohio State’s acting head coach the first three games of this season while Urban Meyer serves a suspension, can relate. He was named the starting quarterback at New Hampshire his sophomore year in 1999, with first-year offensive coordinator Chip Kelly calling the plays that first game at Rhode Island.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/groups/BuckeyeXtraFans and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“And he called a double reverse pass, so that’s what I remember,” Day said of his first play. “And then we went on to win.”
A new Day had dawned for New Hampshire football, such as it is for Ohio State, so Day’s continuing point to Haskins has been to be himself.
“He doesn’t have to be J.T., he doesn’t have to be Braxton, he doesn’t have to be Cardale,” Day said. “All the quarterbacks, they have to be themselves. … Now, there are a lot of things that leaders have in common and we share those and talk about those. But along the way you have to find your own way.”
Fifty years ago, like Haskins now, then-sophomore Kern knew coming out of the spring he was No. 1 for the 1968 team. Coach Woody Hayes told him so.
“Woody and I had an eyeball-to-eyeball,” Kern recalled. “And he said, ‘Rex, I want you to know that right now you’re my starting quarterback. Now, there are going to be some people who question the judgement on this, but I’m the guy who made the decision.’”
Hayes meant starting quarterback in the truest sense.
“He said, ‘Sometimes you’ll see things on the field, certain things my coaches and I can’t see, and you’re going to have to go with your gut reaction,’” Kern said. “I thought that was pretty revealing. … But it was always about the team for me. Who wouldn’t have looked around that huddle (the group that become the Super Sophs) and not be confident.”
What wasn’t well known was Kern suffered a ruptured disc in his back soon after that meeting with Hayes, which put his playing career in jeopardy. Surgery, the first of seven he’d have on his back up to now, repaired the injury.
“And the rest was history,” Kern said.
At least he had time to contemplate his status as starter. Greene, on the other hand, figured he’d be the backup to returning starter Greg Hare headed into 1973. But when a pulled hamstring that Hare suffered in preseason camp was slow to heal, “Word of mouth got back to me Thursday night before the opener I was going to get the start,” Greene said.
There was no sit down with Hayes, just a thrust into the fray, “which was probably good for me, because as you can imagine, the nerves kicked in. If I had gotten the news on Monday, I would have been nervous all week.”
He went on to lead arguably the most talented three teams of Hayes’ 28-year OSU reign, an offense that propelled Archie Griffin to two straight Heisman Trophies, and a 31-game 100-yard rushing streak. If only Greene had known that’s how it would turn out as he prepared to enter the 1973 opener against Minnesota.
“As Coach Hayes was giving me the play, all I was thinking was, ‘Don’t trip and fall into the huddle,’” he said. “It was crazy, I was thinking about everything except football.”
Greene laughed, but he said it’s natural to have nerves at such a moment, and he expects Haskins will have a similar story to tell. But it will be hard to top the experience Kern went through in the team hotel the night before the ’68 opener against Southern Methodist. He had an upset stomach that had caused several trips to the restroom, much the chagrin of his roommate and fullback Jim Otis.
“Woody came around like he always did to check on us, he gave us our hot chocolate and apple, and he said to Jim, ‘I’m expecting a big game out of you tomorrow, so I want you to get a good night’s sleep,’” Kern said. “And Oty spouts off, ‘Coach, if Rex goes to the bathroom one more time, you're sleeping with him.’”
Kern said Hayes responded, “‘By gawd, Jim, that’s a good thought.’”
But Hayes also called team physician Bob Murphy down to check on Kern, and as the examination progressed, and talk from Hayes about the room swap ensued, “Dr. Bob saw my eyes get so big. He looked over at Coach and said, ‘Woody, he’s gonna be OK.’
“I was indebted to Dr. Bob the rest of my life.”