Life was so much simpler for Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones six weeks ago.
But everything became real blurry once freshman sensation J.T. Barrett suffered a broken ankle against Michigan. That forced Jones, a redshirt sophomore, into his first collegiate start, which just happened to be the Big 10 championship. Gulp.
No problem. He completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, in a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin.
Next up was the college football playoff and big, bad Crimson Tide. Surely the Rose Bowl stage and high stakes would be too much for the 22-year-old. He hadn’t experienced significant playing time since leaving Cleveland’s Glenville High in 2011 with a 24-3 record as a starter.
Nick Saban. Sick Naban. Whatever.
Jones led the Buckeyes to a shocking 42-35 victory, passing for 243 yards and rushing for another 43 against the vaunted SEC champions. The win brought him to Monday night’s championship, merely the biggest game of his life and every other player involved. Across the field stood the mile-a-minute Oregon Ducks, armed with a Heisman-winning QB and a No. 2 ranking.
Only diehard Buckeyes’ fans knew about Jones a few weeks ago. No one would blame him for wilting under the big screen at Jerryworld with all of college football looking on. Fifth-year seniors have been known to buckle under that kind of pressure.
Jones didn’t just handle the moment; he made it his own and stamped his final introduction with a 42-20 exclamation point.
He passed for 242 yards and a touchdown, rushed for another TD and treated one Oregon lineman like a bowling pin on a big third-down carry. He was at his best when Ohio State needed it most, completing 6-of-9 passes for 178 yards when facing third or fourth down with at least nine yards to go.
Just like that, Jones went from being buried on the depth chart to being discussed as an entrant in this year’s draft.
“In my personal opinion,” he told reporters Tuesday, “I’m not ready for that level yet.”
That’s fine. The deadline to enter is Thursday.
He doesn’t have to be prepared until then.
Jones instantly would become the most-intriguing player in the draft. His body of work is too small to accurately gauge his prospects (as if ratings are foolproof), but it’s too shiny to ignore. He aced the eyeball test before suiting up – standing 6-foot-5, 250 pounds – and produced 12 quarters of championship football in the most-intense situations imaginable.
Usually, when paychecks await after intercollegiate athletics are over, athletes return for another year on campus only if they can improve their stock. Strange as it sounds, Jones might have maxed out already.
What’s he going to do for an encore? If anything, going back to Columbus would give scouts more time and more film to find holes in his game. Besides, there’s no guarantee Jones would beat out Barrett or Braxton Miller. Barrett was 11-1 as a starter. Miller was a Hesiman candidate who led the Buceyes to back-to-back undefeated regular seasons before a shoulder injury cost him the 2014 campaign.
Jones could be a throwback, reminding us of an era long past. Quarterbacks used to be drafted and pointed toward the bench, where they’d learn the NFL game while becoming intimately familiar with a clipboard. After a few years, once the veteran was past his prime or no longer could hold off the youngster, there’d be a change under center.
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will be the first QBs selected and they won’t have the luxury of time for development. They’ll be expected to come in and produce right away. Jones could be among the next players taken at a position that’s widely considered as weak this year.
Any team that selects him will know he’s far from a finished product. That team also will want to show how smart it was to nab him, realizing the proof won’t materialize immediately.
The strip of tape across his training-camp helmet would say “PROJECT,” not “JONES.”
Yes, he could forsake the draft and go back to school. But considering the type of offense coach Urban Myer runs, another year in the spread wouldn’t necessarily help Jones football-wise. He’d be better off learning a pro-style offense this summer.
Getting a degree would be nice, too, though it can be done later. And don’t forget Jones is the player who in 2012, amid all of the talk about pay-for-play, had the nerve to tweet: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
After that performance in his first/last/only three starts, he has a point.
The NFL will take him now, ready or not. So why wait?