Make the call

Joey Kaufman
Ohio State quarterbacks Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett warm up before the 2015 season opener against Virginia Tech. Jones said he didn't learn he was the starter until just before the first offensive series. [Barbara J. Perenic/Dispatch]

Cardale Jones stood on the sideline amid of throng of roaring Virginia Tech fans on Labor Day in 2015 when he learned he had been named Ohio State’s starting quarterback.

It was moments before Jones trotted out with the offense for their first series of the opening game against the Hokies.

“They told us to go out there,” Jones said, “and it happened to be my name.”

The Buckeyes’ coaches waited until the final minutes before settling the long-lasting quarterback competition between Jones and J.T. Barrett. As the passers went through practices and warmups leading up to kickoff, they were still waiting for a resolution.

The vacillation set the stage for an underachieving season for the Buckeyes. Their national title defense fell short, missing the College Football Playoff, and Jones and Barrett never felt comfortable behind center. They would split time throughout the fall.

“We wanted one guy to be the starter and one guy to be the backup,” Jones said. “We didn’t want a two-quarterback system. We didn’t want to alternate. We didn’t want, ‘Hey you play around on the field and you play around in the red zone. None of that crap. We wanted one guy to be the starter and one guy to be the backup, so we know our roles, and we can prepare.”

Jones wishes coach Urban Meyer and his assistants had named a starting quarterback at least a couple of weeks before the season opener, then stuck with him.

“Even if I was the backup,” Jones said.

Though a bit of an extreme case, the situation from 2015 held one characteristic common in most recent Ohio State quarterback competitions. They continued beyond training camp, lasting until the days before the season opener.

The issue hangs over the Buckeyes as well this August.

First-year coach Ryan Day must settle on a starter before the season opens against Florida Atlantic on Aug. 31. Sophomore Justin Fields, a heralded transfer from Georgia, is considered the favorite ahead of Chris Chugunov and Gunnar Hoak, the other scholarship passers in this derby.

At Big Ten media days last month, Day said he preferred to pick a starter during the first couple weeks of preseason camp, which began Friday, but otherwise has not offered a firm timeline for making a decision.

Four former Ohio State starting quarterbacks offered their perspectives in interviews over the past week.

The quartet held a consensus that Day would be well-served to name a starter soon. His desire to choose the successor for Dwayne Haskins Jr. by the end of training camp was right.

“You want to have that leader set in stone, someone that these guys can look upon and trust,” said Todd Boeckman, who got the nod in 2007.

“There is a different confidence knowing I’m the guy,” said Justin Zwick, who began 2004 as the starter.

“Once you know you’re the starter, as a leader, you can act a certain way,” said Bobby Hoying, who took the reins for the first time in 1993.

Boeckman and Zwick were each named starters by coach Jim Tressel with little time before the first game.

It was four days before the opener in 2007 when Boeckman won the job.

Zwick recalled learning his status about a week before the opener in 2004. He was attending his high school alma mater’s game in Massillon when the news was announced on the stadium loudspeakers.

The announcement ended weeks of uncertainty surrounding Tressel’s decision.

“That's kind of how he played things, real close to the vest,” Zwick said. “Nobody really had any idea.”

Tressel maintained suspense during preseason practices as Zwick and Troy Smith split repetitions with the first-team offense.

Coaches offered feedback along the way, but Zwick had trouble deciphering the exact pecking order among the signal-callers.

Waiting for a decision proved wearing over time.

“It weighs on you a little bit more not knowing,” Zwick said. “Did I do enough today to get the coach’s eye? Did I take a step forward? Did I take a step back? How are they grading me? How are they looking at me?

“It’s just a lot of stuff that bounces around in your head. You try not to think about it, because you have camp, you’re up at 6 a.m., you go to bed at 10 at night, you got a lot of other stuff going on. You try not to think about that stuff, but we’re all competitors. We all want to be the guy. So it’s always there in the back of your head.”

The majority of the Buckeyes’ practices this month are closed to reporters, meaning there will be an inexact tally of how the quarterbacks split first-team reps.

Fields, though, was first in line in drills when camp opened Friday.

As jockeying for the spot on the depth chart persists over the next weeks, Jones felt it was important for the quarterbacks to keep a steady approach.

“There’s no need to stress and wreck your brain on what the coaches think, or who you think had the better day,” Jones said. “Control what you can control and make the best of your opportunity."


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