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Handicapping the Ohio State Quarterback Race for 2015

When Ohio State starts the new chase for a repeat championship, at least the Buckeyes will have their “12 Gauge.” When Cardale Jones announced his decision to forego the NFL Draft and return to the team for his redshirt junior season, the first important domino fell in what should be one of the more interesting offseasons in Buckeye football history.

But how will this decision affect the race for starting quarterback in 2015 for Ohio State?

The short answer: significantly.

According to Bovada, opening odds for making a prop bet on who starts the season opener against Virginia Tech stand at:

  • Cardale Jones: 11/10
  • Braxton Miller: 5/4
  • J.T. Barrett: 7/2

Other odds have been reported that favor Jones almost twice as much as Miller and Barrett, who are viewed roughly equally in those potential bets. Why is a third-string quarterback expected to win the job with the other two players back in the mix? The answer is multi-faceted.

First, there is still a significant chance that this becomes a two-man race for the quarterback job. Despite winning two Chicago Tribune Silver Footballs as the league MVP in 2012 and 2013, Braxton Miller is no lock to take back the job stolen from him by a shoulder injury re-appearing in the fall camp this past season.

Miller could potentially move to an H-back role, something that Ohio State’s offense utilized for much of the season with Dontre Wilson, but then had no options when Wilson went out with a broken foot during the Michigan State game. Miller realistically does not have a prototypical NFL quarterback body or throwing skills, so this could be a way to maximize his benefit to the team and also his future paycheck.

Miller’s health is also a huge open question. The re-injury to the shoulder came after Miller tried to quickly rehabilitate following minor shoulder surgery in February 2014. The expected recovery time for the second surgery is about 12 months, which puts his return right in the middle of fall camp. If the recovery does not go as quickly as possible, Miller might not have enough time and reps in practice to knock off the rust and be the best option to start at quarterback.

And then there’s the biggest potential reason Miller may not be in the quarterback race: a potential transfer to another school. Unlike Ohio State, many other prominent programs would gladly add the missing piece of a great quarterback and let him play right away as a graduate transfer in 2015, similar to how Russell Wilson moved to and played for Wisconsin right away in 2011. Unlike Jones’s decision regarding the NFL, Miller is a much bigger risk (in my opinion) to jump somewhere else because he still insists he wants to be a quarterback. But he’s simply no longer the only Heisman Trophy candidate in the OSU backfield.

So with all of those factors, it becomes easier to see why Miller is being discounted in this race before it begins.

jonesbarrettmiller

Barrett appears to be a more interesting case, but he too will likely be limited at least during spring practices thanks to recovery from the broken ankle he suffered against Michigan. Barrett did win the job last season “fair and square” over Jones, but do not forget that he had not won that number 2 slot on the depth chart until a week before Miller went down to injury. For most of that time, the redshirt freshman trailed Jones in this race, so it’s not a clear cut decision between the two signal callers.

Furthermore, Barrett was truly lucky to lead this team a year before anyone expected him to in 2014. It seemed as though his track would be to wait two years for Braxton Miller to play out his eligibility in 2013 and 2014 (the latter year becoming an unexpected redshirt due to the shoulder injury), and then try to take the job as a redshirt sophomore in 2015. But he was thrust into the starting role and put up big numbers, sufficient to let him finish in the top 5 of Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman.

Despite his great numbers, Barrett is like Miller in that he’s not a prototypical NFL quarterback build, so that will likely mean he will stay in school through the end of his eligibility, just like Miller has. That means Barrett still potentially leads this team for three overall seasons even without taking the starting job in 2015. It would just be 2014, 2016 and 2017 instead of the expected 2015-2017. Barrett seems mature enough to understand this and he is very likely to be willing to bide his time if the other players win the job for 2015.

Plus, Barrett is also a risk to miss much of spring drills to be conservative while recovering from his own injuries. That will give Jones even more first-team reps which can make all the difference when making a decision months later on who is the right fit to lead the rest of the offense.

So while Barrett will take his shot, especially in fall camp, to win this job once again, it’s not exactly the end of the world if he does not. Meanwhile, Jones and Miller are almost both certainly gone following 2015, opening the door for the patient Barrett to star once again.

That leaves Jones, who offers something quite different than Miller and Barrett. Jones appears to have the biggest arm strength of the quarterbacks, and he is a tough physical runner who is just as likely to take a large defender on to push for extra yards rather than juke out of tackles like the evasive Miller and Barrett. Jones proved that he can run the Ohio State run-heavy spread attack well in the final three games of the season, but this offense just looks a little different when using Jones as the centerpiece.

jonesbarrettmillerheyya

Another big variable is the promotion of Ed Warinner to offensive coordinator from his previous position coaching the offensive linemen. With Tim Beck (formerly Nebraska’s offensive coordinator) coming in to fill the quarterback coach position left by previous OC Tom Herman, that could cause a significant shift in how the Meyer spread is run in 2015.

Warinner seems to be the type of guy who will want to leverage his linemen and stay strong with the running game. Considering how effective bruising tailback Ezekiel Elliott can be, it would be no surprise to see Warinner want another bruiser in Jones as an alternative running threat.

So far, Jones is just as durable as Elliott, which is exactly what would be wanted by Warinner when trying to work out the kinks in his first year calling the plays. The health questions regarding the more elusive running quarterbacks could tilt the odds further into Jones’s favor.

Plus, it is difficult to avoid the recency bias of “what have you done for me lately” in college football. Jones did not just step in and avoid disaster with an OK performance like Kenny Guiton had when filling in for Miller in the 2012 Purdue game. He led three of the most dominant performances for the Buckeyes and arguably their three biggest wins, each of which brought a championship trophy (Big Ten championship, Sugar Bowl championship, College Football Playoff championship).

Jones is a “use it or lose it” asset in 2015, just like Miller. That is another reason why both are favored to win this job.

All in all, it is clear that there are plenty of reasons why Jones is the odds on favorite to start the season in the top spot on the depth chart for the Buckeyes in 2015. However, if Miller stays in Columbus and fights for his old spot as quarterback, that will be the most interesting position battle when it begins in the fall (assuming Miller is healthy enough).

Ohio State is the rare team that does not lose a huge senior class and only has one underclassman leaving for the NFL draft (DE Noah Spence, who could not play this past season anyway thanks to an indefinite drug suspension by the Big Ten Conference). Outside replacing some talented receivers, which should not be overlooked, this team is effectively going to be a stronger and more experienced version of the 2014 version that won the national championship.

In view of this, there are not going to be a lot of question marks this offseason for the Buckeyes to address. Instead, nearly all focus can be on tweaking the offense to Warinner’s liking and this quarterback battle.

My guess: Jones wins the job for starting game 1 against the Hokies, but Miller sees playing time that grows more as September goes along (if he stays healthy). Just like with running backs, the run-heavy offense of the Buckeyes can work with putting in different quarterbacks to test a defense in different ways with that running attack. By Big Ten season in October, expect a more even split between Miller and Jones if both are playing at a high level.

Sure, that might not be a recipe for a Heisman, but it likely provides the best outcome for the team, which is exactly in line with the mentality that these three quarterbacks have had (and why all three would still be at OSU despite these circumstances).

As noted above, this is the only story of significance for Ohio State’s offseason (hence the microscope laser focus on it). It’s a truly enviable position for the other teams in the conference to look at, watching OSU struggle with the “problem” of having too much depth at quarterback while sitting on all the championships from the 2014 campaign.

Yet make no mistake: OSU will get every team’s best shot in 2015. That can make even a dominant team (2002 Miami, 2010 Alabama) fail to win a championship.

But there may be no better way to stave off complacency at the most important position on the field than to have legitimate competition for playing time. If leaders like Barrett, Miller, and Jones must compete every day to keep a job, that work ethic should trickle down to raise the level and effort of everyone else on the team as well.

Yes, this offseason will indeed be interesting in Columbus. However, it is just the type of interesting that may not actually be helpful for other competitors like Michigan State and Wisconsin, who hope to find some way to knock the Buckeyes off the mountaintop next fall. And with another bumper crop of top recruits coming to Columbus over the next few weeks, the rich may just keep getting richer, at the quarterback position as well as otherwise.

How do you see the quarterback race for OSU in 2015? Please let us know in the comments below.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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