Columbus, Ohio — We know J.T. Barrett speaks more loudly at the line of scrimmage, yelping counts and audibles his Ohio State football teammates can hear, even when an end zone’s student-section squealers are crashing a stadium’s sound barrier.
That’s fortunate. For the Buckeyes, anyway.
The casual Barrett, the Barrett who sat Monday at an interview table inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, a short beard adorning jaws that seemed barely to move as he spoke with just a trace of Texas in his drawl, could barely be heard.
That changed by perhaps a quarter-decibel when Ohio State’s deft quarterback was asked when a kid from Wichita Falls, Texas, might have gotten his first deep bead on Ohio State’s relationship to Michigan, which the Buckeyes happen to play at noon Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
“I committed (to the Buckeyes) on April 18, 2012,” Barrett explained, sitting at a table, wearing an Ohio State and Nike-approved long-sleeve scarlet T-shirt, as well as black sweatpants trimmed in scarlet. “So, the next week, a player committed to them (Michigan) and burned an Ohio State letter.
“I thought that was a little much. That’s when it clicked: These guys don’t care for each other.”
Joe Thomas Barrett hopes for a different kind of torching Saturday. He wants Ohio State’s attack to blaze against Michigan’s suffocating defense. He hopes a 21-year-old quarterback, 6-foot-2, 223 pounds, with fleet feet and a heavyweight throwing arm, can stoke Ohio State and win a ticket to the Big Ten championship game.
And, if it means incinerating Michigan’s championship and NCAA final four dreams, then, well, that’s destruction at the heart of a rivalry this brutal.
“First thing that comes to mind,” he said, with all but a shoulder shrug. “It’s one of those things. They don’t like us and we don’t like them. It’s going to be rough, tough football.”
Michigan has its reasons to sweat ahead of Saturday’s kickoff. The Buckeyes are 6½-point picks and are playing at home. Like the Wolverines, they have lost once, on the road, and no matter what anyone wants to say about Ohio State-Michigan and supposed psychological advantages not counting, home field is an edge either side would happily grab.
So, too, is quarterback viewed as a difference-maker. The Wolverines aren’t sure if Wilton Speight and his bad left shoulder can go. The Buckeyes, conversely, are set with Barrett, a redshirt junior who could be headed for the NFL draft in April.
Barrett tends to influence a game the way driver-engine combinations affect a car race. He is dual-skilled on a team brimming with talent.
Consider his passing numbers: 63.4 percent completion percentage on 314 passes in 2016, good for 24 touchdowns and a mere four interceptions. He has rushed for 722 yards and eight touchdowns.
This would explain Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s view that it is “a unique combination for a quarterback to have all those things” and weapons incorporated into a single man.
“Slippery,” Harbaugh said, “and a tough runner, like a running back. But he’s got the vision of a quarterback. He’s got the throwing ability of a quarterback.
“There’s times he will put the ball in the tightest of windows. All the heady plays he makes, all the athletic plays he makes, the fine throwing plays he makes — he plays with a lot of confidence.”
He also has a dandy pair of running backs marching with him in Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel, which Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is sure to emphasize at least early Saturday.
Barrett, though, will be the toughest quarterback the Wolverines will have stared down in 2016. Michigan’s cornerbacks love to press receivers and entangle them in barbed wire before a quarterback can get time or room to zing a pass.
It could be Barrett also is due Saturday for a happy career crescendo in what might be his final Buckeyes home game. He broke his ankle against Michigan two years ago, which, thanks to Cardale Jones’ rescue, didn’t stop Ohio State from winning a national championship.
Barrett also messed up big-time last autumn when he mixed whiskey and the wheel during a bye weekend and was charged with drunk driving.
He got busy afterward making amends in ways that have comforted, as much as possible, a team and Ohio State community. He made sure his teammates got harsh instruction in DUI dangers. He went to work on a potent message to youth. He tried to turn a potential disaster into something that would open eyes and deter others from a gamble with tragedy.
And then he got back to football. To winning. To bringing a team within one test, Saturday against Michigan, from a Big Ten title showdown and a probable place in the NCAA semifinals.
Meyer had spoken earlier Monday about Barrett. About those touchdowns, and very few turnovers, and how a man had grown since he rolled into town from Texas in 2012.
“In an evaluation-friendly profession,” Meyer said, “he’s in an evaluation-friendly category.”