Wednesday, March 2, 2016

2016 NFL DRAFT: 'Cardale Jones and the Last Crusade'

Jones looked like the second 'Chosen One' in the state of Ohio at one point.

In Cardale Jones' final game as an Ohio State Buckeye quarterback, he didn't take a single snap.

As the team celebrated it's 44-28 New Year's day Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame, the smiles on the players' faces were genuine. Satisfied relief due to a hard fought win against a solid football team was the expression most of the Buckeyes players exued, especially of the guys that would be graduating or entering the NFL Draft and playing with these group of brothers for the final time.

J.T. Barrett started at quarterback (for what would have been the sixth straight game had he not been suspended for one following a DUI arrest) and played well. Joey Bosa, star defensive end and projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was ejected from the game in the first quarter for targeting Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer. Running back Ezekiel Elliot rushed for four TDs, flashing the trademark OSU abs to the fans in the back of the endzone after one of them, and doing the iconic Bosa shrug pose after another.

It was a good win for the program but it wasn't a game against Alabama, or Oklahoma, or Clemson. Those teams played the night before, Dec. 31, on the big stage. The Buckeyes were left out of the College Football Playoff. Their hopes were crushed on a last second field goal Nov. 15 at home against Michigan State. The Spartans won the Big Ten championship and locked up one of the coveted final four playoff spots. Bitter and dissappointed, there were questions if many of Ohio State's players would be motivated to play in a lesser bowl game and rather just try to not get hurt and mess up a chance to play in the NFL next year. Alabama would go on to trounce Sparty 38-0 in one of the semifinal games, the night before the Buckeyes took the field in the Fiesta Bowl. That game could have given players incentive to prove to critics that the loss to Michigan State was a fluke and to gripe that, 'we could've played Alabama better than 38-0!'

Again, Cardale Jones did not play.

For that to fully resonate, you have to go back and look at what he and the team accomplished towards the end of the 2014 season. And to get a better understanding of what exactly the 6-5, 250-pound quarterback prospect from Cleveland went through to get there, you have to go back farther on his timeline.

His Twitter timeline to be exact.

Its fair to say that no one outside of the state of Ohio knew who Jones was until the then redshirt freshman took to Twitter and posted this:

Of course this caused a major uproar, and head coach Urban Meyer suspended jones for the following game. It didn't really affect the team at all, as Jones was the 3rd string QB, and Braxton Miller, the 2012 and 2013 Big Ten Offensive player of the year, was the starter. It wouldn't be until the end of the 2014 season that Jones would truly get a chance to blowup on the field and not just on social media.

Miller would miss the entire 2014 season with a shoulder injury, and a competition for starting quarterback between Jones and Barrett began. Neither player had started a game in their careers and Barrett, a redshirt freshman at the time, won the position battle. Other than an early season loss on the road to Virginia Tech, Barrett solidified his role as the starting quarterback and undisputed captain of the team (44 total TDs are school and Big Ten records), leading the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record and a birth in the conference championship game.

But Barrett suffered a broken ankle in the win over Michigan in the final game of the regular season and was ruled out for the year. Now down Barrett and Miller, coach Meyer would have to turn to the same guy he had to suspend the year prior for suggesting he only wanted to play football. He was finally getting his chance to play some.

In his first career start, the 2014 Big Ten conference championship game against Winsconsin, Jones threw for 253 yards and 3 TDs. Ohio State cruised 59-0 and earned a spot in the inagural College Football Playoff with that win and faced No. 1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in a semifinal game. Jones once again rose to the occasion and the Buckeyes advanced to the championship game. If there was any doubt left that Jones had what it takes to be a championship quarterback, he erased it when Ohio State defeated the Oregon Ducks 42-20 in the CFP championship game, who were led by Heisman Trophy winner and current Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Jones started three games and went 3-0. And he didn't just game manage. He made plays all over the field.

So how did it get to the point that in his final game ever wearing the scarlett and grey, Jones did nothing but wear a headset and carry a clipboard?

The performance Jones put on last year did not go unnoticed by NFL scouts and Jones, who was a redshirt sophomore at the time, was eligble for the 2015 NFL Draft. Analysts and the like projected him to go in the 3rd or 4th round. With Barrett coming back to OSU after breaking records, and Miller also poised for a return, Jones had the decision of leaving for the pros rather than returning to Colombus with the other two guys who were previously ahead of him on the depth chart going back there. But Jones decided to stay in school (irony) and from that point until the first game the next fall, the controversy of who would start at QB in 2015 for the Buckeyes was born. Meyer finally named Jones the starter before the team's first game. Barrett was backup and Miller made the transition to H-back over the summer to utilize his speed and agility as a runner and receiver. To say Jones was lackluster to start the season would be accurate. When you compare it to what he did in the final three games of the previous season, it would be easy to call him a bust. After a particularly poor performance against Indiana, Jones took to Twitter with some rather somber tweets and even changed his bio so that it said "3rd string quarterback." Barrett went back to being the starter the following week and, save for a game where he was suspended for getting a DUI, started the remainder of the team's games and handled almost every snap. Following the Michigan State game, his final game at the Horshoe in Columbus, Jones announced on Twitter (where else would he say it?) that he intended on forgoing his senior season and entering the NFL Draft.

So what is the next step for the legend that is Cardale Jones?

He didn't play much at all towards the end of his career, and definitely will take a hit in his draft projection from last year, but he has the size and the arm to be able to play quarterback at the next level (Cam Newton doing what he's doing right now will help prospects like Jones in the future). What he put on tape this year was brutal at times and he injured himself running the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.  All he can do now is have a good day at OSU's pro day Mar. 11 and hope that he can build off the three spectacular games that he has on tape.

Maybe he gets picked up late in the draft and makes a living as a backup. Maybe he doesn't make it in the NFL at all. Somehow, someway, and sometime, a coach or GM is gonna break out the tape from his first three starts though, and look back in amazement at the next level poise he displayed and the offense he generated.

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