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J.T. Barrett vs. Deshaun Watson is a matchup years in the making

Urban Meyer once hoped the two would compete for the starting job at Ohio State. Now they’ll square off for a shot at a national title

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

You could almost feel the culture shift within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on the first Tuesday of February in 2013. Coming off an undefeated 12-0 campaign the prior fall, the Ohio State coaching staff was putting the final touches on what would become one of the most celebrated recruiting classes in program history.

For much of the morning signed letters of intent flooded the athletics department’s fax machine, containing now-heralded names such as Vonn Bell, Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliot and Jalin Marshall. Ohio State was no stranger to excelling in recruiting, but this was something different altogether. This is what you pay for when you hire Urban Meyer.

The ensuing press conferences turned into a celebratory affair, as Meyer and his assistants discussed their vision for the touted class of incoming freshmen. As with any sports-related media session, most coaches spoke in platitudes and generalities. But Stan Drayton, then serving as the team’s running backs’ coach, didn’t shy away from sharing the staff’s primary recruiting objective.

“We are trying to out-recruit our current football players,” Drayton told the media.

Drayton knows Meyer better than most. He served as an assistant on Meyer’s staff at both Ohio State and Florida, and watched both programs grow into powerhouses as Meyer stacked elite talent at every position, creating an obsessively competitive culture that bread championships.

Many coaches pander to blue-chip recruits, selling them on the notion that they’re already good enough to contribute immediately. Meyer promises only that they’ll have to fight for every rep they receive, that they’ll be competing with players who were equally coveted in previous recruiting cycles, and that there will be even more highly-ranked prospects coming to take their spot the following season. Somehow, he still almost always gets his man.

J.T. Barrett was hardly the headliner of Ohio State’s 2013 recruiting class. The 4-star quarterback from Texas was ranked by 247sports as the 137th best prospect in the nation, placing him behind 11 other Buckeye commits. Still, on the surface, it appeared that Meyer had handpicked his quarterback of the future. In reality, the Buckeyes’ head coach was anything but assured.

For years Meyer had a policy that he wouldn’t accept a commitment from a quarterback before seeing the prospect throw live. So when Barrett called then-offensive coordinator Tom Herman late in his junior year, surprisingly ready to commit his scholarship, it sent Meyer into a state of panic. He wasn’t sold that Barrett was the caliber of thrower he needed to compete nationally, but knew that not accepting his commitment immediately would likely push the prospect away for good.

At Herman’s urging Meyer relented, and when Barrett enrolled early during the winter semester of 2013, it was hard to push aside the feeling of buyer’s remorse. Barrett suffered a torn ACL during his senior season in high school, and arrived in Columbus overweight.

“Coach Meyer is looking at me like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’,” recalled Tom Herman, as told in Bill Rabinowitz’s book The Chase. “He’s going to play quarterback for us?”

Quickly, Meyer and his staff fell in love with Barrett as a person, as the young signal caller displayed leadership and maturity well beyond his years. But on the field questions lingered, as Barrett underwhelmed in the 2014 spring game as a redshirt freshman, his first taste of action in Ohio Stadium.

There was never a doubt in Deshaun Watson. Ranked as the top dual threat passer in the 2014 recruiting class, Watson was one of the most highly coveted prospects in the country. Meyer hankered for Watson as much as anybody, seeing in him the prototypical quarterback for his spread offense, and an opportunity to out-recruit Barrett.

Watson, however, verbally committed to Clemson in February of his sophomore year, six months before Meyer would even coach his first game at Ohio State. The Buckeyes did everything they could to overcome the uphill battle, recruiting Watson as hard as they recruited any other prospect, while not seriously pursuing any other elite alternatives. But Watson didn’t budge.

“It was over,” remembered Meyer, earlier this month. “We tried really hard to get involved, but they did a good job locking him down.”

Watson’s decision to stick with his commitment has had a lasting impact on the Ohio State program to this day. On the recruiting front, the Buckeyes have since altered their approach when targeting quarterbacks, pushing for commitments early. By pursuing Watson until the bitter end in 2014, Ohio State was left at the alter without a legitimate backup option, and settled on an unheralded 3-star in Stephen Collier at the eleventh hour as a result. Collier has never played a meaningful snap as a member of the Scarlet and Grey, and likely never will.

When last year’s top target Dwyane Haskins wasn’t ready or willing to commit to Ohio State in the spring, Meyer and the Buckeyes quickly moved elsewhere and accepted a commitment from another prospect who was. Haskins would eventually rethink his own recruitment, and in turn the Buckeyes shifted their priorities to make him the only quarterback in the class. Ironically enough, he’s been playing the part of Watson during bowl prep. Meyer sees a lot of Watson in Haskins, but he learned from the experience in 2014 to not put all of his chips in that basket when targeting the 4-star from Maryland.

On the field, much of the story has already been written. Barrett was prematurely thrust into a starting role as a redshirt freshman after Braxton Miller hurt his shoulder - against Clemson, of all teams - in the Orange Bowl to conclude the season before. Barrett would deliver shaky performances at first, but grew as the season progressed, and led the Buckeyes to the precipice of the playoffs before suffering an injury of his own.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider how things would have differed that season, had Meyer flipped Watson to Ohio State, as he’s done with countless other blue-chip prospects. As an early-enrollee, would Watson have beaten out Barrett for the starting gig in 2014, as he was recruited to do? Does Cardale Jones ever have the opportunity to rise as a local legend, had he been buried behind not one but two freshmen quarterbacks? If Watson is the starting quarterback in 2014, does Ohio State still win the first ever college football playoff?

Meyer once envisioned that Barrett and Watson would one day duel for a starting job at Ohio State. The Buckeyes coveted Watson on the likely premise that they were out-recruiting Barrett, but with Watson at Clemson, Barrett never had the opportunity to elevate in the face of that competition. Now he does, with a spot in the national championship on the line.