DALLAS -- By every account from the Ohio State football program -- from teammates, to head coach Urban Meyer, to assistant athletic director for football performance Mickey Marotti -- quarterback Cardale Jones is not the same person he was just a couple of months ago. That the first three starts of his career have been for a Big Ten title, a national championship game berth and now a national title have little to do with the transformation. But that doesn't mean the timing hasn't been just right.
Meyer indicated that effort and determination have been problems for Jones, a sophomore and the Buckeyes starting quarterback against Oregon in Monday's title game.
"Cardale has always had talent, but something really happened in the last couple of months. I know he had a little baby girl. Everybody in life has a chance to push restart," Meyer said. "Not many people on a grand stage like Cardale has, and he pushed restart and he hit the right button, and that's called a selfless approach and a serious approach to how he handles his business, on and off the field."
A preseason injury to Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller and a late-season injury to Miller's dynamic replacement, J.T. Barrett, thrust Jones from third-string to starting quarterback just in time to face Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game Dec. 6. After winning that game with an impressive, albeit conservative, performance, Jones beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl with, according to Meyer, a greater command of the offense. But Jones has only recently come into the maturity that his newfound starting role demands. Meyer said Jones actually exited spring practice as the No. 2 quarterback ahead of Barrett, but was overtaken by Barrett in preseason practice.
"He beat out J. T., (but) he's a guy that was not a finished person, was not a guy that would finish drills," Meyer said.
Still, Jones's carefree way off the field was endearing to teammates. Various Buckeyes said this week that Jones has yet another quality that has carried him through the pressures of the postseason: He doesn't feel that pressure. It's not in his makeup to be overwhelmed by an athletic challenge. After all, at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and with an arm so strong he's been nicknamed "12-gauge" to match his jersey number, Marotti said Jones wasn't challenged much athletically at the high school level.
Marotti also illustrated just how far Jones has come with some startling recollections of Jones's struggles as a freshman.
"He'd always be last in conditioning, and (I'd say) you'll never be quarterback here -- you're always last. I've never coached a quarterback who was last in a run, ever. He'd keep pushing, keep pushing, got in better shape," Marotti said. "He was a complete opposite of Tim Tebow. When (Tebow) showed up as a freshman he was already decorated, jacked-up and in great shape. Cardale was the furthest thing from it. ... He was one of the worst I've seen. I'd ask about him, and it was, 'He passed out, he got dizzy, he's in the training room.' And we (hadn't) even started training. It was a warm-up."
From that, to this: Jones could conceivably win a national championship game Monday night for the Buckeyes, and be buried again on the third string behind Miller and Barrett again by spring practice. Or, if rumors of a Miller transfer materialize, he might need to beat out only Barrett this spring -- which he's done once before already -- to carry the Buckeyes' starting role into 2015.
No pressure or anything. And no slacking off, either.