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Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer 88d

J.T. Barrett can learn a little from Baker Mayfield

College Football, Ohio State Buckeyes

J.T. Barrett would never take a giant flag with the Block O, sprint to the center of the opponent's field and stab the middle of the opponent's logo.

Not even at Michigan Stadium. 

It's not in Barrett's personality to stir things up, even after a big win. The Ohio State quarterback is steady, focused and coach-like. He's not an agitator like Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, the mastermind behind Saturday's flag planting on the 50-yard line at Ohio Stadium after the Sooners' impressive win over the Buckeyes last Saturday. 

But Mayfield could provide a different sort of example for Barrett, who tries to get himself and the Ohio State offense back on track. The Buckeyes' struggle to make big plays and score points from the end of last season has carried over into 2017. It has left everyone to wonder what's wrong with the offense and some to point the finger at Barrett.

Let's be clear: Barrett isn't the main problem. Multiple coaches and analysts who have watched Ohio State this season told ESPN.com that the issues go beyond Barrett or even beyond new playcaller Kevin Wilson, who fell on his sword Wednesday night, saying he did an "awful" job in the Oklahoma loss. 

"One guy ain't gonna fix everything in six months," a Big Ten coordinator said. "I'm sure there's more to it than just the coach or just the quarterback."

Barrett can expedite the repair process, though, by employing a more aggressive approach, taking a few more risks and improvising more.

In short, he needs a little Baker Mayfield in his game. 

Whether you love Mayfield or can't stand him, it's hard not to respect his creative, entertaining, pedal-down style, especially in road settings, where he's 10-0 as the Oklahoma starter. Mayfield's best trait might not be his 68.6 percent career completion percentage, or his 94-24 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but rather his ability to go off script without second-guessing himself.

Barrett's career numbers also jump off the page. He's not as accurate as Mayfield with a 62.4 percent career completion percentage, an element many have harped on during the offense's recent struggles. But coaches and other observers are noticing something else in his recent play: Hesitancy. 

"He doesn't look like the same confident player," a Big Ten coach said.

  

Rewind to 2014. Barrett truly never fit the gunslinger definition, but he averaged 9.03 yards per completion as a redshirt freshman with 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also threw to a receiving corps featuring two eventual second-round NFL draft picks in Michael Thomas and Devin Smith, who averaged 28.2 yards per catch that fall. He shared a backfield with Ezekiel Elliott, a future first-round pick who rushed for 1,878 yards and was unquestionably the nation's best pass-blocking running back. 

Barrett's highlights from that season show a quarterback confidently stepping up to throw downfield, or tangling defenders with nifty moves on long scoring runs.

"They had really good receivers, guys that were going deep," said a defensive coordinator who faced Ohio State in 2014. "I don't know if they have those guys now. I don't know if they have a vertical threat that opens it up. Now you're talking about a guy [Barrett] making tighter throws into tighter spaces, and I don't think that's his game."

Coaches who have opposed or studied Barrett agree that downfield passing isn't his strength, which could conflict with Wilson, a playcaller known for stretching defenses. Last season, Wilson's Indiana team finished ninth among Power 5 teams in percentage of pass attempts of 20 yards or longer (19.4). Ohio State ranked 59th in the same category.

Barrett has connected on just one of his past 18 pass attempts longer than 20 yards, stretching back to the Michigan game in 2016. 

"That's not his deal," a coach said. "I know that's what they want to be an asset for them. I just don't know if that's going to happen or not."

Barrett might not be oozing confidence in the downfield game, or in the receivers tasked with making big plays, but he must continue to attack, even though those plays carry risk. It might take some freelancing to extend plays and give the wideouts time to break free, but Barrett, like Mayfield, is elusive enough to evade the rush for an extra second or two.

Barrett will still make plays running the ball -- "That's his wheelhouse," an opposing defensive coordinator said -- but he can't be the featured back like he was toward the end of last season when he had 24 carries against Michigan State and 30 against Michigan. He has to know when to run and when to channel his inner Mayfield and move around to buy time for his receivers to get open and make plays in the passing game.

Keeping the ball lets Barrett maintain control and limit mistakes. But an offense with a very good but not exceptional running quarterback and no steady downfield threat doesn't really scare defenses, especially defenses that can attack the edges of Ohio State's offensive line, like Oklahoma did with Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.

"As an offense, we have to be more creative and take more chances," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "You have to be educated about it. If we hit some of those plays and a couple guys go up and make some of those plays and we hit them, it's obviously a different ballgame. ... But that's being addressed."

This week, Barrett's teammates and coaches have gone out of their way to defend him, as they should. No Buckeye carries more respect in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Ohio State's first-year quarterbacks coach Ryan Day told me recently how much he's motivated by Barrett and how he wants the senior to be "the best version of himself" in his final go-round.

"He is a phenomenal manager," Wilson said Wednesday, "and it's my job to get us in position where he can be the player he is. We're going to work hard to get it back on track."

Ohio State's next five games come against Army West Point, UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska, the types of opponents Barrett historically dominates. This is the time to cut loose, to take chances, to build confidence in areas where confidence is lacking. Barrett doesn't have the supporting cast he did in 2014, so he must be the catalyst, the aggressor, the magic man.

Mayfield showed him the way Saturday night, as painful as it was to watch.

Be Like Baker may never catch on in Columbus, and that's understandable. But if Barrett sprinkles a little Mayfield into his game, he could do many great things in his final season.

Among them: planting the Block O atop the Big Ten come December.

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