COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When Ohio State captured an improbable national championship two years ago, J.T. Barrett was pushing himself around on the sideline on a scooter that kept his broken right ankle elevated.
After a breakout season filling in for the injured Braxton Miller in 2014, Barrett went down in the Michigan game, ushering in third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and consecutive victories over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. Barrett could only lean on the scooter and watch the heroics.
A healthy, confident Barrett led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record and a spot in the College Football Playoff against Clemson on New Year’s Eve. Instead of being relegated to the fringe, he’s now is at the center of intense bowl game prep with a chance to play for another national championship.
“I think it’s a blessing just to be healthy throughout the long season,” Barrett said. “Just to be able to play, man, it’s crazy. I’m thankful for that.”
Off the field, Barrett is soft-spoken but self-assured. On the field, pre-game and at halftime, the young Texan can be seen yelling at his teammates to fire them up . He’s become known for online videos of his fiery locker room speeches, but talks so softly in interviews that sometimes he’s hard to hear.
A split personality?
“I think it’s what’s needed at the time,” he told a news conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Tuesday. “I don’t need to be screaming and yelling talking to y’all. Y’all are not about to play Clemson.
“… Outside of the ball game scenario, this is who you get,” Barrett said. “I apologize if I’m not throwing water bottles across the room and knocking reporters, but I’m just not that guy.”
Despite a stumble at Penn State and some ongoing difficulties getting on the same page with his young group of wide receivers, Barrett has been the catalyst of the Ohio State offense. He has consistently found ways to win, tucking the ball and picking up yards when the Buckeyes needed it most. Although he couldn’t match his 2014 numbers, Barrett broke the school record this season for all-purpose touchdowns while throwing for 2,428 yards and 24 scores and rushing for 847 yards and another nine TDs.
“I think that anybody will tell you that when you’re taken away from the game that you love you grow to appreciate it,” said wide receiver Noah Brown, who sat out all of the 2015 season rehabbing a broken leg. “And I’m sure that this time around he’s got a great appreciation for what he’s able to do and takes great responsibility for the outcome.”
Ohio State lost 16 starters after an uneven 2015 season. Their championship hopes faded with a loss to Michigan State in the second-to-last game of the season. Barrett ended up taking over for an ineffective Jones during the year and also served a one-game suspension for drunken driving.
“The things that happened off the field, that helped me grow as a person,” Barrett told reporters. “(You) understand that this game of football can come and go real fast if you don’t hold onto it.”
With eight new starters on each side of the ball this year, a return to the College Football Playoff seemed unlikely; even coach Urban Meyer acknowledged that he thought the Buckeyes were at least a season away from competing for a championship again.
But a terrific defense emerged, dynamic H-back Curtis Samuel lived up to expectations and freshman Mike Weber took a major step toward becoming the next great tailback in Columbus. And Barrett seemed to take personal responsibility for winning games.
“I think within the team we were definitely confident in our skills,” he said. “We knew we were young and were going to have to get a lot of experience pretty fast, and I think that’s what the road games helped us with. Losing at Penn State also helped us in that as well.
“At the beginning of the season we weren’t chirping and letting everybody know we were going to be a good team but we put our heads down and went to work in order to show that for ourselves more than anything.”
With another year of eligibility remaining, Barrett hasn’t said whether he’s coming back to Ohio State next year or entering the NFL draft, but his size (6-foot-2) and mediocre arm strength likely would keep him from being a top pick even among available quarterbacks.
For now, he’s focused on winning a playoff game and a national championship. Two years ago, all he could was look on and hope there would be a next time.
“I think playing in it is something totally different,” he said. “I was able to watch and help our team from the sidelines, but playing in it, like I said, that’s totally different. That’s something I definitely want to be a part of.”
Barrett and his teammates know that just because he’s healthy this time around doesn’t mean that things will necessarily work out against a Clemson team that has Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson at quarterback and a defense on par with Ohio State’s unit.
“He did watch it two years ago, and I don’t think fate or karma or any of that has anything to do with it because college football is a nasty animal,” guard Billy Price said. “I’m telling you now, it doesn’t matter. I think he’s going to be prepared.”