Four Kings: Troy Smith, Justin Fields, J.T. Barrett and Rex Kern Selected As Ohio State’s Four Best Quarterbacks of All-Time

By Dan Hope and Matt Gutridge on June 17, 2023 at 10:10 am
Troy Smith, Justin Fields, J.T. Barrett and Rex Kern

Who are Ohio State’s four greatest players of all-time at each position? We’re asking Eleven Warriors readers to help us decide.

We initially started the Four Kings series back in the fall of 2020 after the Big Ten canceled the football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the Big Ten reinstated the season just a few weeks later, we put the series on hold and shifted our focus to covering one of the weirdest football seasons in Ohio State history.

Now, however, we’re ready to give the series its proper due and poll our readers on who Ohio State’s best players ever are at every offensive and defensive position to determine who should make the Buckeyes’ “Mount Rushmore” at every spot.

We’re starting at the quarterback position, where Ohio State’s passing records have been rewritten repeatedly in recent years by the likes of J.T. Barrett, Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud. However, only two of them made the cut for Ohio State’s four best quarterbacks ever, as they had to contend with a Heisman Trophy winner and the leader of the Super Sophomores, among others.

Our Four Kings were selected based on the percentage of total votes they received from our reader poll. After introducing the readers’ choices for Ohio State’s top four all-time greats, Eleven Warriors staffers Dan Hope and Matt Gutridge share who they voted for and why at the bottom of the article.

The quarterbacks are listed in order of the total number of reader votes they received.

Troy Smith (2003-06)

Only one quarterback in Ohio State history has ever won a Heisman Trophy, making Smith the obvious choice for the first spot on our Four Kings at quarterback. Smith, who set the record for the highest percentage of Heisman ballot points ever when he received 91.6% of the vote in 2006, received 20.55% of a possible 25% of votes (since each voter was allowed to pick four quarterbacks) in our balloting for Ohio State’s best quarterbacks ever.

Smith went 25-3 over more than two seasons as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, winning all three of his career starts against Michigan and leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 regular season and a berth in the national championship game during his Heisman-winning 2006 campaign. The Big Ten’s all-time leader in passing efficiency at the time his career ended, Smith was also an effective running threat for the Buckeyes, and he was at his best against the team up north, topping 300 yards of total offense in all three of his starts against the Wolverines.

Simply put, Smith is the most decorated quarterback in Ohio State history. By winning the Heisman, Smith achieved immortality as one of the Buckeyes’ all-time greats and set the standard for all Ohio State quarterbacks who have followed him.

Justin Fields (2019-20)

Fields started only 22 games for Ohio State due to the aforementioned COVID-shortened season in 2020, but that proved to be more than enough time for Fields to cement himself as one of the Buckeyes’ best quarterbacks ever. 

The prototype for a modern Ohio State quarterback, Fields is the most talented all-around quarterback the Buckeyes have ever had, using both his passing and running ability to carve up defenses throughout his two years at Ohio State. Fields went 20-2 as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, never losing a regular-season game while throwing for 5,373 yards and 63 touchdowns and adding 867 more yards and 15 more touchdowns as a runner.

A Heisman Trophy finalist in 2019, the Big Ten Silver Football winner in 2020 and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in both of his two seasons in scarlet and gray, Fields left no doubt about his standing as an all-time great in Columbus despite starting his college career at Georgia and entering the NFL draft after just two years in Columbus.

J.T. Barrett (2014-17)

No Ohio State quarterback holds more records than Barrett. The Big Ten’s all-time leader in total yards (12,697), total touchdowns (147) and touchdown passes (104), Barrett also holds Ohio State’s school records for career passing yards (9,434) and most wins as a starter (38), among other records. In an era where it is increasingly rare for quarterbacks to be three-year starters at the collegiate level, let alone four, those records are likely to stand for many years to come.

Barrett played a crucial role in the Buckeyes’ 2014 national championship run, leading Ohio State to 11 regular-season wins before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, and is the only Ohio State quarterback to go 4-0 as a starter against Michigan. He was a revered leader throughout his Ohio State career, becoming the first three-time captain in Ohio State history. 

Despite all of his accomplishments, Barrett was a polarizing player among fans during his Ohio State career. He wasn’t the elite thrower that the quarterbacks who have followed him have been. But he was a winner who did what he needed to do as both a passer and a runner to lead the Buckeyes to victory far more often than not, and that earned him the approval of our voters as one of OSU’s best quarterbacks ever.

Rex Kern (1968-70)

The only 20th-century Buckeye to make the Four Kings at quarterback, Kern still holds the record for the best winning percentage of any quarterback to start at least 15 games for the Buckeyes. The leader of the “Super Sophomores” who won national championships in 1968 and 1970, Kern went 25-2 as the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback, finishing his career with 4,158 yards of total offense – a school record at the time.

A first-team All-American in 1969, Kern remains the only full-time quarterback in Ohio State history to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (fellow Hall of Famer Les Horvath played both quarterback and running back). Like Barrett, Kern was both an adept passer and an effective runner, yet his career was defined by his consistent winning and excellent leadership.

His numbers might pale in comparison to Ohio State’s most recent quarterback greats, but his impact on the Buckeyes was undeniable. Until Smith’s Heisman-winning season more than three-and-a-half decades after Kern’s career ended, Kern was widely considered Ohio State’s best quarterback ever, and he still holds a place among the Buckeyes’ all-time greats today.

Woody Hayes and Rex Kern
Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes went 25-2 and won two national championships with Rex Kern starting at quarterback. (Photo: Malcolm Emmons – USA TODAY Sports)

Honorable Mentions

Top 10 QBs by Votes
Quarterback Votes
TROY SMITH 82.3% (493 VOTES)
J.T. BARRETT 52.6% (315 VOTES)
REX KERN 42.9% (257 VOTES)
C.J. STROUD 36.9% (221 VOTES)
Note: All percentages were multiplied by four
from their vote totals since each voter was able
to vote for up to four players.

While C.J. Stroud didn’t quite make the top four, Ohio State’s most recent quarterback received nearly twice as many votes as any other QB on our ballot. Stroud is the most statistically efficient passer in Ohio State history, setting school records for passer rating (182.4) and passing yards per game (324.9), but his 0-2 record against Michigan undoubtedly played a part in his fifth-place finish in the balloting.

Four other quarterbacks received at least 100 votes from our readers: Dwayne Haskins, Craig Krenzel, Art Schlichter and Braxton Miller.

Haskins started Ohio State’s transformation into an elite passing offense with his Big Ten record-setting 4,831-yard, 50-touchdown season in 2018, but was dinged by some voters for starting just one season for the Buckeyes. Krenzel didn’t put up big numbers by modern standards, but he received credit from voters for leading Ohio State to the 2002 national championship. 

Schlichter’s on-field accomplishments have been overshadowed by his off-field troubles, but he was Ohio State’s all-time leader in passing yards and quarterback wins until those records were broken by Barrett. Miller is the only Buckeye other than Archie Griffin to win the Silver Football twice and was the most dynamic runner Ohio State has ever had at quarterback.

Dan’s Picks

Justin Fields, Troy Smith, C.J. Stroud and Dwayne Haskins

As someone who has born more than two decades after Kern’s Ohio State career ended, I acknowledge my recency/exposure bias in my selections, but I personally believe Ohio State’s last three starting quarterbacks are three of the four best quarterbacks in Ohio State history.

Fields got my first vote for a simple reason: If I was building a team of all-time Buckeyes that I thought would give me the best chance to win a championship, Fields would be my quarterback. Smith’s standing as a Heisman winner also made him a no-brainer selection. Stroud and Haskins are the two best passers Ohio State has ever had, so they get my final two votes – though I also gave strong consideration to Braxton Miller, who was one of my favorite Ohio State players ever to watch and who I believe has become underrated for just how electric a playmaker he was.

Matt’s Picks

Justin Fields, Troy Smith, Dwayne Haskins and Braxton Miller

Fields is Ohio State’s most complete quarterback. He had a strong and accurate arm combined with fleet feet. A bad call against Clemson in 2019 (yes, it was a fumble) kept him from playing for a national championship.

Smith has his number honored in Ohio Stadium and was one win away from winning a national championship. He was an integral part of changing the quarterback position to what it is today.

Haskins broke every single-season passing record in school history. Haskins also legitimately beat out Joe Burrow for the starting job. Enough said.

Miller is the only quarterback in Ohio State’s storied history to earn Big Ten MVP honors twice. A career-altering shoulder injury kept us from seeing Miller and Ezekiel Elliott in the same backfield for the 2014 season ... scary.

Photos of Kern and Smith via Malcolm and Matthew Emmons, USA TODAY Sports

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