Joe Burrow is the big catch that got away. Whether he spit the hook or Ohio State released him means little anymore. What matters is the LSU quarterback returned to comfortable surroundings, no longer a fish out of water.
If fish have to swim, then Burrow has to be operating a spread offense that fits him, like the one he directed at Athens High School in 2014. Like the one he is running at LSU this season.
It all looks so natural now for the senior from The Plains, Ohio — take the snap, make the reads, decimate the defense — that it is hard to picture Burrow bumping across a career of exhilarating ups and demoralizing downs. But that’s how it went for the Athens County kid turned bayou hero.
From Ohio’s Mr. Football to a crushing Division III state championship game loss. From signing with Ohio State to losing the starting quarterback competition to Dwayne Haskins Jr. From transferring to LSU to enjoying a good but not great first season in Baton Rouge. To now turning in one of the best single-season quarterback performances in college history.
If things happen for a reason, then for Burrow the reason likely will be resting in his hands Saturday night in New York, where the 23-year-old almost certainly will become the second LSU player and first former Ohio State player to win the Heisman Trophy.
“It’s almost like divine intervention,” said Ryan Adams, who coached Burrow at Athens.
The divine did not happen seamlessly.
Burrow described his decision to leave Ohio State after the 2018 spring game as the hardest of his life. Maybe the only thing more difficult was not getting picked to start for the Buckeyes.
Urban Meyer, with input from then-quarterbacks coach Ryan Day, made the decision to go with Haskins last season. Haskins had moved ahead of Burrow when Burrow suffered a broken hand on a defensive player’s helmet during preseason camp in 2017. And it was Haskins who entered the 2017 Michigan game and rallied the Buckeyes past the Wolverines after J.T. Barrett left with a knee injury.
The competitor in Burrow bristled at not being able to lead the Buckeyes offense, but he never sulked; acting professionally had been drilled into him by his father, Jimmy, who retired last year after coaching defense for 14 seasons at Ohio University.
Former Ohio State offensive lineman Matthew Burrell recalled meeting Burrow when the two lived on the same floor of the Neil Avenue dormitory.
“Joe always wore a Cleveland ‘Delly’ shirt. He loved Delly and ’Bron,’ ” Burrell said, referring to Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova and LeBron James. “It wasn’t corny. He loved how competitive (Dellavedova) was.”
Meyer loved that Burrow hated losing and was mature beyond his years.
“Coach Meyer put him on a separate pedestal because he was so mature and professional at an early age,” said Burrell, who like Burrow transferred south — to Sam Houston State — in late spring of 2018.
Burrow mostly led the scout team, subbing into games for Barrett only during blowouts, but even then Burrell saw the potential for “my guy” to become something special.
“He’d do stuff that was freaky good, but it was the scout team so it wasn’t highlighted,” said Burrell, who is not surprised his former teammate is a cinch to win the Heisman.
“Joe is his own dude in his own world, and when you join his world he’s rocking it,” Burrell said. “It’s nuts to say I snapped for Joe and for Dwayne — two of the best to ever do it.”
Adams saw Burrow’s future falling into place at Athens, where his senior season he threw for 4,437 yards and 63 touchdowns and the Bulldogs scored a state-record 861 points (57.4 a game).
“I thank the lucky stars that he was able to land in a place where he’s really able to demonstrate what he’s capable of doing with a group of 10 other football players offensively,” Adams said. “What you’re witnessing is what we were able to witness and put together from the high school standpoint, in terms of optimizing his abilities.”
Burrow has thrown for 4,715 yards and 48 touchdowns against six interceptions this season, with the highest completion percentage (77.9) in the nation.
His improvement from last season, when he threw for 2,894 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions with a 57.8 completion percentage, has been aided by LSU hiring passing game coordinator Joe Brady away from the New Orleans Saints to run the spread. But Burrow is the one who has made it work.
His former quarterbacks coach has noticed.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of a guy than Joe,” Day said this season. “I’ve enjoyed watching on TV, but also even watching his film, seeing what they’re doing throwing the ball.”
The big fish is back in familiar waters.