I've been on record as being #teamCardale since last spring, and until last week that hadn't changed. The suspensions of Corey Smith, Joey Bosa, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall for the season opener, however, are reason for pause. Yes, Ohio State won a championship despite losing to Virginia Tech last year, but I'd very much like to not have to rely on a 59-0 victory in the Big Ten Chamionship Game to back into a playoff spot this year. Before last week's suspensions, I was confident that, given the rest of the roster, Cardale Jones added the right elements to our team and belonged in the QB1 slot. Now? The removal of four playmakers from the depth chart for Virginia Tech has me re-thinking whether I really want Ohio State's less experienced, albeit championship winning, quarterback running the show. Here's the three main questions I need answered:
1. How's the offensive line look this year?
This time last year, Ohio State's offensive line lacked cohesion and experience, and it showed. By the end of the year the line had formed into a gang-plowing band of brothers, skilled at facing different defensive fronts and producing results. The Buckeyes offensive line was simply masterful at opening lanes and gaps for Ezekiel Elliott and providing JT Barrett and Cardale Jones with excellent pass protection.
What do they look like this year? Four starters return on the line, and Nick Vannett is an experienced tight-end who can both catch passes and provide blocking support. But Chase Ferris is new at right tackle - is he up to the task? Ed Warriner is still Ed Warriner, offensive-line-whisperer, but he's got new duties as the lead offensive coordinator this year. Does he have enough bandwidth to both craft this multi-faceted offense and coach up the offensive line? (Spoiler alert: most likely yes.)
Bottom line: does this year's offensive line pick right back up where it was last year, or is there a learning curve and a regression after this off-season? A strong offensive line that can provide a running game and pocket time is going to be key to feeling comfortable with Cardale Jones under center, especially in the season opener against a very hungry, mean and aggressive Virginia Tech defense.
2. Is the depleted receivers corps ready for action?
Last year, Virginia Tech stacked the box against Ohio State with its bear defense and dared first-time starter J.T. Barrett to beat them in the air. That didn't end well. This year, the passing game will again have questions on September 7 when receivers Corey Smith, Jalin Marshall and hybrid Dontre Wilson ride out their suspension. Evan Spencer and Devin Smith, Ohio State's long-ball specialist, have graduated. Does Oho State have enough other receiver targets to get the passing game going?
Michael Thomas (shhhh....), judging by his Twitter account, is ready for the challenge.
This year we are about to make a killin #shhh— Mike Thomas (@Cantguardmike) August 2, 2015
But can he back up his talk? What about Braxton Miller - is he really ready to play big-time H-Back? Can the new blood of Ohio State receivers pick up the slack? Are they ready for the short-passes, screens, and dink-and-dunk style football that comes when a team loads up to stop the run? Is there a burner in this group who can get under Cardale's 70-yard missiles? Last year Ohio State had an experienced group of receivers with an inexperienced quarterback and couldn't get the win. Cardale showed promise last year as a passer, but its difficult to say if that was more attributable to the skills of the receivers rather than the Jones's passing acumen. Can the Buckeyes get a win with greener receivers and a QB who's only started three games?
3. Can Cardale adjust (and re-adjust, and re-adjust) during a game?
I sat in Ohio Stadium for the Virginia Tech shame-fest last year, and what I saw was a Buckeye team that struggled mightily to adapt to unexpected game developments. Virginia Tech's bear defense stymied Ohio State's game plan, disrupted their flow and sent J.T. Barrett into panic mode several times. It was easy to chalk that loss up to Barrett's inexperience in handling in-game adjustments, and making tweaks based on the defensive strategy of the opponent was an area that both Ohio State's coaches and Barrett improved upon as the year went on. Teams continued playing a stack-the-box style defense against Ohio State, and Barrett found the weaknesses and exploited them. Barrett showed incredible resilience to keep finding new ways to win as teams schemed for the Buckeyes offense.
Cardale Jones demonstrated last year that he can take the wheel under big time pressure and perform - but the Buckeye team in December of 2014 was a finely tuned race car running on rocket fuel. The Buckeye team on September 7 is going to be like a race car missing its performance tires and fueled by just regular-old gasoline. The center-state aspect of the Labor Day Virginia Tech game won't faze Cardale. The question is whether, if things happen that are unexpected and unplanned for, can Cardale make the in-game adjustments that are necessary?
If Virginia Tech pulls another defensive rabbit out of their hat and presents a unique, tailored defensive front, is Cardale ready to throw the game script out the window? J.T. Barrett, simply by virtue of leading the Ohio State offense for the majority of last season, would appear to be more prepared to handle those shifting sands. It's clear that Urban Meyer thinks Barrett's got the leadership and field-general side of his game down pat:
Urban Meyer: JT Barrett’s leadership is "off the charts right now" Cardale Jones "It’s getting better." Looking like Barrett to us.— BucksInsider (@bucksinsider) July 30, 2015
Cardale looked great during the Buckeyes post-season last year, but it remains to be seen how much of that was a function of the team peaking at just the right point, or whether that was Cardale's skills making the team better. It's probably a bit of both, but what would have happened during the Alabama game if the offensive line hadn't bulldozed paths for Ezekiel Elliott to damn near gain 11 yards per running play? What if the pressure on the pocket had picked up? In other words, if other parts of the Buckeye offense break down, does Cardale have the knowledge, experience, poise, and capability to work with the coaches to shift into another gear? Barrett's shown he can do that - look at last year's Penn State game for an example of Barrett winning when everything was not going our way. Cardale's got more unknowns in this area.
Unless Cardale Jones somehow demonstrates in practice that he can handle the stress that comes with watching a game plan crumble and the ability to guide the team into a new, functional offensive plan on the fly, I'm not comfortable with him under center. Cardale undoubtedly can handle the pressure of big games, but does he have the football IQ to back up that confidence?
I'm looking forward to getting answers to these questions when camp begins next week, but I'm starting to think these questions mean it's going to be Barrett at QB1 next month.