In his first three collegiate starts, Cardale Jones guided Ohio State to a Big Ten title, a monumental Sugar Bowl win against Alabama and a conquering of Oregon to win the first-ever College Football Playoff national championship. In a month, he went from a backup's backup (one best known for a silly tweet two years ago) to a national sensation on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"This feeling is unreal right now because three or four months ago everybody counted us out," Jones said the morning after defeating the Ducks, 42-20, in Dallas.
"They said we wouldn't be here at this point in our careers, in the season, and the way that we were smiling through all that, it was just unbelievable."
Likewise, few figured Jones, formerly the team's third-string quarterback, would be an unlikely hero in a memorable postseason run in which he passed for 742 yards and five touchdowns.
When it was all over, head coach Urban Meyer said "Cardale's brand right now has never been stronger. Might never be stronger again in his life.”
It's why it was also unexpected when Jones announced his intention to return to the Buckeyes next season. He did so at a press conference at his high school in Cleveland, where dozens of news outlets across the state flocked to the Ginn Academy to document what Jones called a "life-changing" decision on social media earlier in the morning.
"My decision was very simple: I’d been talking it over with my family and my friends, my coaching staff," he said. "I’m going to return next year for school."
"It’s everybody dream and goal when they play football or any collegiate to make it to the next level," Jones added, "but in my point in my career, I feel like it’s best for me to go back to school and one of the most important things for me to do is to graduate."
And as fellow quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller recover from injuries that ended their respective seasons last year, Jones might just pick up where he left off at AT&T Stadium in spring ball next month.
While Meyer has yet to divulge much information on who will be Ohio State's starting next season, Jones said, "he didn’t make me any promises."
"Hopefully, I am the starter," he continued, "but I mean, if I’m not, I’ll have to wait until my opportunity to do present itself again."
Before he ever stepped into the spotlight, if you were to look at Jones and know little to nothing about him, you’d just figure he was the team's starter and a future NFL quarterback.
At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Jones is built like Cam Newton. Jones made the deep ball an art form, throwing it better than any quarterback on the roster (and perhaps better than any Ohio State quarterback since Troy Smith). Jones is strong, durable and, as Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon found out, rather difficult to tackle.
This combination makes him an interesting challenge for defenses to prepare for. Defenders bounce off him like he were a runaway train and his Howitzer for an arm dares them to forget about the passing game.
Off the field, Jones doesn't appear to be the liability he was before assuming the role of starting quarterback. "My education is gonna take me 10 times further than my athletic ability,” he said last month during a press conference to announce his return for another season.
Jones isn’t the runner that Braxton Miller is, and he might not be as accurate as J.T. Barrett.
Having played only three games, it’s also hard to quantify Jones’ intangible qualities. That's not to suggest Jones isn't a leader, but Barrett and Miller have proven they can take teams through three months of football, not three games.
Jones showed a great deal of maturity and dedication to his craft in the postseason, but it’s always possible that he find himself distracted during a regular season where the Buckeyes should be favored big in most of their games. While Jones maintains he's a changed man and appeared serious about making the most of his education while at Ohio State, it wasn't that long ago that he was the apathetic guy playing Call of Duty in his apartment instead of going to class or watching film. Jones seems to have turned a corner, but old habits can sometimes die hard.
Cast into the spotlight at a moment’s notice, Jones exceeded most people’s expectations — Meyer and the coaching staff’s included. He also seemed to improve in the passing and running game with each start.
By the end of Ohio State’s vanquishing of Oregon to win the national title, it felt like Jones was in complete control of the offense and had commanded his coach's hard-to-earn respect.
After saying thanks but no thanks to the NFL last month, Jones is the front-runner for Ohio State's starting quarterback job. Given what he did in his to guide the Buckeyes to the national title in Dallas, maybe he should be.