NEW ORLEANS — Cardale Jones, who sat at a small table in a moving sea of reporters during Sugar Bowl interviews Sunday afternoon, smiled ear-to-ear, laughed and reflected on what’s been a long, winding, and somewhat unintended journey.
“It’s just been huge growing pains, so to say, because my maturity level was not where it needed to be coming into college,” he said. “That was actually one of the reasons why I went to military school … it’s good to look back on it and see where I’m at now.”
And, if we’re being honest, where Jones is now is a place probably few he’d be in December of 2014. Seriously, raise your hand if you thought Jones, Ohio State's third starting quarterback in three months, would be among the most sought after interviews in New Orleans.
Yet after losing starters in Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett to season-ending injuries, this is the new normal for Jones, who is charged with leading the fourth-ranked Buckeyes into the biggest game of the Urban Meyer era.
All year long, a saying around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center has been “next man up.” When Miller fell 12 days before the season opener, players and coaches referred to the line when talking about Barrett, who guided Ohio State to an 11-1 record before breaking his ankle against Michigan. When that happened, the mantra resurfaced.
“It’s like, next man up, but when is it? When am I gonna be up? When am I gonna be up?” Jones said.
In a way, Jones has become a sort of prodigal son story for Ohio State — the troubled, lazy, kid who infamously tweeted he “ain’t here to play school” to the team’s starting quarterback, one will take the Buckeyes into the Sugar Bowl against top-ranked Alabama Thursday night.
- Before co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman officially accepted Houston’s offer to its next head coach, Jones said he had a “very uncomfortable conversation” when reports surfaced Herman was leaving Ohio State.
- Jones said: “It was just emotional, you get close to someone like that for three years and then they leave, but he set the record straight. It’s not like he’s out of my life or whatever or anything like that, he’s just not my coach.” On Monday, Herman and Jones attempted to prank one another during interviews. “He’s always going to be in my life, not just far as coaching so much … Like when we found out he got the job, I mean, we all knew it was coming, we always have these talks.”
- Jones said Herman has been “unbelievable, actually” in his ability to balance dual roles at Ohio State and Houston: “It’s like he’s still gotta pick coaches and get ready for team meetings and all that and he’s still taking orders from Coach Meyer and preparing for this game and the next game. It speaks loud on his part.
- Jones added there’s “no difference at all” in Herman’s preparation now that he’s leaving Columbus for Houston in a few weeks. “He’s still preparing for the game like he’s gonna be there next year … we (were) all prepared.”
- Jones said he’s happy for Herman: “Every assistant coach wants to be a head coach and to see him being able to live his dream is great.”
- If Jones can lead the Buckeyes to another monumental victory against Alabama, he might be able to insert yet another candidate vying to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback next season along with the injured Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. “I’ll leave that to the coaches, because they’re gonna have three good quarterbacks coming back next year. Like I said, coming back next year. So none of us are thinking about leaving or anything like that. I’ll leave it up to the coaches to figure it out.” Miller and Barrett were starters before suffering season-ending injuries.
- Added Jones: “I don’t allow myself to think to tomorrow, I just try to take it one day at a time and grasp everything in front of me at this point in time. A lot of decisions that coach Meyer is going to have.
- Considering Ohio State’s unusual situation at quarterback, Jones said the group jokes with Herman about joining forces with him in Houston: “We joke with him a lot, like, somebody will throw a good pass and we’re like, ‘Yeah, you’re ready to sign your papers to Houston’ and stuff like that. I don’t think he’d want that for us.”
- Jones said he’s spent “countless” hours studying Alabama’s defense. “Dating back to last year’s Sugar Bowl … just trying to be prepared for any and everything.”
- He added it’s no different than before as a backup: “I prepared each week like I was a starter before last week. Of course (there’s) more film and more studying because it’s not just any game, it’s a one-game season now. But as far as emotionally and mentally, I think my mindset’s stayed the same.”
- Jones, who has started a grand total of one game in his collegiate career, isn’t sold on the idea that a lack of film on him playing puts Alabama at a disadvantage: “Maybe? Maybe not? It’s Nick Saban. He’s been around a long time and he’s had much success. I don’t think he’ll see anything he hasn’t been ready for.”
- Jones on the biggest difference between starting and watching from the sideline: “Of course the game speed than practice is completely different, but it’s so different for a quarterback; it’s more mental than physical to me in my opinion. Especially with the type of offense that we run. So just putting all that to work from the mental reps, that helped a lot.”
- Jones on facing adversity against Alabama after more or less rolling over Wisconsin three weekends ago: “We practice situations like that, where things aren’t going well. And this is the game of football, not everything’s going your way all the time. Things like that happen in practice. It’s all about how you respond and how you react to it."
- What caught Jones’ eye about Alabama’s defense: “I would say the unbelievable size of the guys up front. They have some guys that, you know, we run a lot of plays and schemes like Auburn and a couple other teams in the SEC and these guys up front are getting double-teamed.”