With his teammates lining up to pat his helmet or offer compliments, J.T. Barrett just jogged silently through the praise and waited for his center after Saturday’s final touchdown. He didn’t even spit his mouthpiece out until he reached the bench.
Then, with two minutes left in the game, the Ohio State quarterback began taking practice snaps. He didn't joke, didn't smile, even when the game was virtually won -- Ohio State 34, Navy 17 -- and it looked as if his day might be over.
“J.T. is a very serious guy,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “He goes about his business, and he’s a pro. That’s how he acts.”
Nearly 1,500 miles away in Barrett’s hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas – a town whose claim to fame is a 54-foot cascade of man-made falls – his past high school coach and teammates weren’t surprised. That’s always been J.T., they said.
This is the Barrett they grew up with, the one who missed his senior season with a torn ACL but still attended practice with a jersey on and a helmet by his side. It’s the Barrett who shocked coaches as a sixth-grader when he hurled a pass 50 yards at camp. And it’s the Barrett who never takes his focus off the game – even when it’s in hand.
“That’s J.T. right there, man,” said Jim Garfield, who coached Barrett on the Rider Raiders. “He’s all business. He’s going to operate and he’s going to do all the things the staff ask him to do. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Business-like and calm and collected were the adjectives attached to nearly every conversation about Barrett, from Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and TV analysts on down to Buckeyes teammates and high school friends. It’s just about the first thing to notice in the redshirt freshman.
Barrett kept an even tone around a scrum of reporters following Saturday’s Navy game. He surveyed the room, maintained eye contact and spoke about an interception the same way he talked about a touchdown.
Was there a time you said to yourself you’d be fine after the pick?
“Not really,” Barrett said.
He didn’t need to; he knew he’d be fine. In the past, he’d prepare for situations and plays by envisioning them all in his backyard. He was ready for anything; a change in scenery wasn’t going to alter that.
“He is a phenom; there’s no other way to describe it,” said Brandon Williams, his friend and high school receiver. “His mind just works in so many different ways that you couldn’t even imagine. You could play the kid in Connect Four, and he will not let you win. He will win no matter what it takes – if it’s him that has to get the ball or the next guy down the line. His leadership, you wouldn’t believe. When he talks, you get chills down your spine.”
The Buckeyes are hoping for every bit of that from Barrett this weekend. Virginia Tech’s defense was ranked No. 4 nationally in total defense last season – and it’s sure to be a tougher matchup for Barrett than Navy. But Barrett’s former high school teammates just laughed when asked if Barrett would be at all intimidated or panicked.
He's a professional, they said, and he approaches every game -- and every drive -- the same way.
Former Rider running back Domanic Thrasher recalled the time Barrett calmed the team in the huddle and led a game-winning touchdown drive with 56 seconds left. Williams remembered the time the Rider staff signaled a play to the offense by holding their arms up as if there were a touchdown – literal name of the play: “Greatest Football Play Ever” -- right before Barrett heaved a long score to end the first half. And Garfield, the coach, can remember the way Barrett always managed to stay upbeat, even in the face of deficits -- or a season-ending injury as a senior.
“In pressure situations, you would never see a downside on him,” Garfield said. “He was always a positive and matter-of-fact person. And, after that injury, he was like a coach on the sideline.”
Ohio State fans haven’t seen the entire Barrett yet. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman wants to bring the first-year starter along gradually, after all, so shorter passes and an established run game were the Buckeyes’ backbone Saturday.
But, as season progresses and Barrett becomes more accustomed to the offense, those who know him best say the Big Ten is in for a surprise. The 19-year-old is all business, and he still has a long career ahead.
“You really haven’t seen a whole lot just yet,” Garfield added. "J.T. is a kid that got himself ready for this path. He can handle anything."