Ohio State was forced to make a decision when J.T. Barrett exited with a knee injury in the third quarter of this past season’s rivalry game at Michigan.
The Buckeyes made the seemingly obvious choice by putting backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins in the game, and Haskins saved the day, leading Ohio State to a comeback victory over the Wolverines.
Yet with the game on the line and Michigan holding a 20-14 lead at the time of Barrett’s exit, Ohio State considered turning to a quarterback who had never before played in a collegiate game.
While Tate Martell ultimately ended up redshirting his freshman season for the Buckeyes, the four-star recruit still traveled to every game, leaving open the possibility that he could play if the situation called for it. And when the Buckeyes lost their starting quarterback in what was arguably their most important game of the season, that situation nearly arose.
"We talked about it," Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said at his media availability prior to the Cotton Bowl, when asked if the Buckeyes considered pulling Martell’s redshirt this season. "We had the situation with J.T.’s injury at the very, very end, where we were playing the rival game. And I think he would have wanted to play the one game if we needed him. And we’re like wait a minute now, that’s a whole year, because he would lose a year of eligibility if he plays in that game."
Ohio State ultimately stuck with Haskins against the Wolverines, Barrett returned to play in the Buckeyes’ final two games of the year and Martell remained on the sidelines, leaving him with four remaining seasons of eligibility heading into 2018.
The decision the Buckeyes had to make in Ann Arbor, however, could be a precursor to the decision they will have to make this upcoming season.
Haskins, having performed well in limited action this past season, would appear to be the clear-cut choice to succeed Barrett as starting quarterback for 2018. A strong-armed passer who has excited Ohio State fans with his ability to stretch the field, Haskins should enter the spring as the leader in the clubhouse.
The Buckeyes also have Joe Burrow, the most experienced returning quarterback on the roster, who Ohio State’s coaches say was neck-and-neck with Haskins in the competition to be the No. 2 quarterback this season before breaking a bone in his throwing hand during an August practice.
But considering that the Buckeyes even had the thought that Martell’s ability to potentially help them win against Michigan could have made it worth burning his redshirt, there’s reason to believe that the redshirt freshman will be a factor in the starting quarterback competition, too.
While Martell didn’t play in any games this season, he did practice with the team all year – mostly with the scout team, simulating other players to help the defense preparing for games, but as seen in practice leading up to the Cotton Bowl, occasionally alongside the first- and second-team offenses as well.
Wilson said he was impressed with the way Martell developed during his first season with the team.
"In time, Tate became a sponge and really started absorbing coaching," Wilson said. "Where the notoriety of the highly touted quarterback and all the accolades that he comes in with kind of get shoved aside. And he really took off midpoint of this season."
The Gatorade National High School Player of the Year during his final season at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, Martell makes his confidence in himself no secret. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he has his sights set on winning the starting quarterback job, because that’s just who he is as a competitor.
That hasn’t stopped Martell, however, from being a good teammate. Wilson says he has been pleased with the maturity and commitment to the team that Martell has shown.
"He’s really kind of become a great for a freshman, and as a quarterback, he has grown a lot," Wilson said. "He’s still a young pup, but he’s growing, just being a good teammate. I think that's hard at quarterback, because at quarterback you're always 'the guy.' And I think because of that, he's earned a lot of respect from a lot of peers on this team."
“Tate became a sponge and really started absorbing coaching. Where the notoriety of the highly touted quarterback and all the accolades that he comes in with kind of get shoved aside. And he really took off midpoint of this season."– Kevin Wilson
Martell said he learned to check his ego at the door during his first year as a Buckeye, crediting Ohio State quarterbacks coach Ryan Day with helping him grow both on and off the field.
"I’m past all that stuff. Just doing my part, and going out there in the weight room, doing my thing," Martell said. "Coach Day, he helped me get through a lot of my struggles and stuff with that. He’s a great guy that I can go to and talk about everything."
Because he is a dynamic athlete, Martell spent time on the scout team this year not only simulating opposing quarterbacks, but also lining up at running back and wide receiver. Martell said after the Cotton Bowl that he could see himself playing at a different position if he doesn’t win the starting quarterback competition.
Winning the quarterback job could be a real possibility, though, because his ability in the running game could make him the best fit on the roster to run Urban Meyer’s offense. Meyer’s offense has traditionally featured the quarterback running game as a heavy component, and Martell brings a different level of athleticism – maybe not quite Braxton Miller, but similar – to that component than Barrett did.
Even if Martell is the best quarterback on the team to run Ohio State’s offense as it is currently designed, that won’t be the only factor considered in the starting quarterback race, as Wilson expects the Buckeyes to adjust their offense as needed in order to suit the strengths of whoever proves to be the best option.
"I think the way our offense is set up, and with my background, with Coach Day and Coach Meyer, I think we can take things and you blend what the strength of what the quarterbacks can do, what the offensive line can do, what the receivers can do, so the offense I think has flexibility to play to the strengths of the players," Wilson said. "I think really good coaches play to the strengths."
Martell says he ultimately expects the coaches to start whichever quarterback shows that he can move the ball most effectively, regardless of how each might do so.
"You’ll figure it out when the time comes, how the offense moves with who’s in there," Martell said. "The coaches know what they’re doing with each one of us. We all move the ball down the field when we’re at practice. So we’ll see how it goes."
The big question with Martell – as it was with Miller and Barrett – is how well he can throw the ball downfield. How well he answers that question is likely to ultimately determine whether he can seriously challenge Haskins and Burrow for the starting job. But with his development in his first year of working with Day, Martell is confident that his passing ability will be up to the test.
"Coach Day’s helped me a ton with my mechanics and stuff throughout the season. That’s what I became a lot better is throwing the ball," Martell said. "My speed went up a ton, (strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti) made me stronger and faster, but throwing the ball, I’m way better throwing the ball. I can throw the ball with anybody right now, I feel like."
While Haskins sits atop the pecking order among the returning quarterbacks after the 2017 season, with Burrow behind him followed by Martell, Wilson said he expects to see a great battle between the three.
"It sets up to be a competitive spring," Wilson said. "I’m very proud of Tate. I’d love to Joe and Dwayne just keep competing. The key, John Wooden’s old line, the competition and the bench are the two greatest allies to being a great team. I’d love to see some of these young players go compete this spring and see how it sets up."
Meyer didn’t want to get into the specifics of his team’s upcoming quarterback competition before the Cotton Bowl, but he did say that he has been pleased with what he has seen from all three potential contenders for the job, and that he, too, expects the coaches to adjust their offense around whichever player’s merits earn him the job.
"They all have somewhat different skill sets, which is a little bit of a challenge for us. But it's also a lot of fun to go coach those guys," Meyer said. "You realize how good those three guys could possibly be."