Nebraska Ohio St Football

Former Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow, who transferred to LSU last month, will compete with three returnees at the position this summer and fall as coach Ed Orgeron and his staff seek a replacement for two-year starter Danny Etling.

There are so many highlights of Joe Burrow’s storied high school football career in Ohio that it’s incredibly difficult to pick just one that stands out.

It’s easier to look at what the athletic Burrow did as a cornerback — yes, cornerback — than try to analyze the eye-popping numbers he hung up as the starting quarterback at Athens High School from 2012-14.

Former Athens defensive coordinator John Rogers can instantly (and happily) recall when the coaching staff needed Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State to LSU last month, to play cornerback in the state playoffs his senior season.

To say the least, Burrow — who threw for 11,416 yards and 157 touchdowns and rushed for 2,067 yards and 27 scores in three seasons as the Bulldogs’ starter — was a big hit on the other side of the ball as well.

While exposing a prolific quarterback like Burrow to an injury was extremely risky, there was a good reason for it, Rogers said.

“He was probably our best tackler and pretty much would have been the best player at the position, even on a team that played for the state championship,” he said. “He played corner for us, but he would’ve been a great safety, too.”

A strapping physical presence at 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds, Burrow, the son of longtime Ohio U. defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow, knew exactly what to do when he became a two-way player.

Rogers, now the Athens High athletic director, said undefeated Athens was preparing to take on Tri-Valley, which ran the Wing-T offense, in the second round of the Division III state playoffs.

So, the coaches did what most would think is the unthinkable.

“They ran a single wing and we needed the corners to get involved in setting the edge and shutting down the run game,” Rogers said. “So, we put him in.”

Just like that, Burrow stepped in like he had been there all his life. He wound up playing a key role on both sides of the ball in Athens’ 41-20 victory — intercepting a pass late in the game to help seal the win.

Double duty

That turned out to be just the start for Burrow as a defender.

Rogers said the starting cornerback he replaced quit the team, which meant their star quarterback, who went on to earn Mr. Football honors in Ohio, had to log even more playing time in the secondary.

Athens beat St. Francis de Sales in the quarterfinals with Burrow passing for 319 yards and five touchdowns, then got past St. Vincent-St. Mary of Akron, the alma mater of LeBron James, in the semifinals 34-31.

“Then, we got to the state championship game and we’re playing a team (Toledo Central Catholic) that couldn't throw the ball very well,” Rogers said. “But they had two or three Division I running backs, so we put Joe out on the edge again … and he didn’t disappoint.

“He could get off blocks better than anyone; he could tackle as well as anyone on the edge. Our other cornerback, Trae Williams, is playing corner right now at Northwestern. So Joe was a very good, high-caliber corner when he got put in there.”

Rogers said many people around Athens, a small town of about 20,000, still remember a tackle Burrow made in that game even though he shredded Central Catholic’s defense for 452 passing yards and six TDs in a 56-52 loss in Columbus' Ohio Stadium — which soon would become his home for three seasons.

“There was one point in the game, and I don’t remember the exact situation, but it was fourth-and-2 or something,” Rogers said. “They had one of their D-I running backs coming around the edge and Joe just put the stick to him. He can hit … he’s definitely not afraid of contact.

“Joe really was one of the two best tacklers we had on our team,” he added. “He just never played defense because he was the quarterback.”

Four years later, Athens offensive coordinator Nathan White can laugh when he thinks back to what they did.

“Personally, I thought Joe was good enough to be a next-level safety,” White said. “But as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, you’re a little nervous (seeing him on defense) because you know how valuable he is to your offense.”

Learning curve

Rogers said there was never a doubt Burrow could play cornerback — mainly because he is the son of a coach, and, much like many coaches' sons, became a student of football at a very young age.

“His football IQ, his football acumen, is so high,” Rogers said. “Joe was a kid that was absolutely a coach on the field, because he understood the game as well as any of the coaches did.

“We knew all year what we had, that if there was an injury or there was an extreme circumstance where we needed somebody in a pinch, he was a guy who could help us out. When we got in the playoffs, it was always kind of in the back of our minds.”

By then, interceptions and big hits aside, they knew what they had and knew what Burrow was really going to be at the next level.

Even though his dad was a defensive coach, it didn’t stop Burrow from becoming arguably the best quarterback to come out of the Ohio prep ranks since Art Schlichter, who played at OSU and was the No. 4 overall pick in the 1982 NFL draft.

As a senior, Burrow capped his career with 4,445 passing yards in 15 games. He put together an astounding ratio of 63 touchdowns to two interceptions in the four- and five-wide spread run by White.

“While he was like a coach on the field, Joe was very respectful of Nathan,” Rogers said. “If you ask Joe, he would tell you Nathan really opened his eyes to the game. Nathan kind of put the easy puzzle pieces into Joe’s mind.

“Joe is such a creative kid; he loves the game and is such a student of the game that you could put him in adverse situations or at a position he’d never played before — and he understood it. You were just never afraid to put him in any situation.”

Making the transition

Rogers said football may have been Burrow’s third sport in middle school, with basketball and baseball being the other two.

But that all changed when he entered high school in the fall of 2011.

Even though Burrow continued to play basketball at a high level — he averaged 17.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in 68 games for the Athens varsity over three seasons — he gravitated more to football and White’s spread attack.

“Nate developed Joe as an Xs-and-Os guy and really made him fall in love with the sport,” Rogers said. “Nate just put so much belief in the kid. From the time he was a freshman, he literally told him at one point, ‘You can play at Ohio State … you can play at a school like that; you’re that good.’ ”

Burrow proved him right when he put up huge numbers as a sophomore and increased them each of the next two seasons.

He had more than 200 completions each year and went from 3,239 yards as a sophomore to 3,732 as a junior and 4,445 as a senior.

Burrow completed 62.2 percent of his pass attempts as a sophomore and increased it to 71.2 and 72.3 percent the next two seasons. He threw 47 TDs each of his first two seasons before exploding for 63 as a senior.

As a dual-threat quarterback, he rushed for at least 575 yards each of his three seasons, which was topped by an 836-yard output as a sophomore.

“The thing that was consistent about him, from his sophomore year to his senior year, was clearly everything improved,” White said. “He threw for more than 3,200 yards and 47 touchdowns as a sophomore, so he was talented from the get-go. But everything improved steadily and slowly every single day.

“He showed up every day with a focus and just the attitude of, ‘We have to get better today.’ That’s really the mantra of our program, but it’s really nothing unless your leader buys into it.”

On to Ohio State

Burrow’s considerable talents earned him a scholarship offer to Ohio State, whose Columbus campus is located just 75 miles northwest of his Athens home.

But he had to sit back and redshirt his freshman year behind J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones before serving as Barrett’s backup the next season.

A broken hand derailed Burrow last fall, and, sensing he wasn’t going to have a chance to beat out Dwayne Haskins to replace Barrett following spring practice, transferred to LSU after obtaining his degree.

“He’s a good dude,” said Barrett, who signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent last month. “He’s a hard worker, a grinder, and he’s going to do anything for the team.”

Burrow left Ohio State having thrown just 39 passes. He completed 29 for 287 yards and two TDs but obviously yearned for much more after a solid spring.

He'll compete this summer and fall with LSU's three returning quarterbacks — sophomore Myles Brennan, junior Justin McMillan and redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse.

Although he keeps in touch with Burrow, White said he didn’t try to find out what eventually went down with the homestate Buckeyes.

“I talked to him a little about this decision and what he was thinking this spring, and I know he thinks he had a pretty solid spring,” White said. “He was very content in how he finished at Ohio State, that he worked really hard to get better … and he did.

“I know the whole time he was there he had a great attitude and worked really hard. He felt he did everything he could do to win that job, and if it didn't work out, he was going to pursue other things — which is kind of how it ended up.”

Barrett added: “He hasn’t played a lot of competitive reps. But at Ohio State, we compete all the time, and he’s one of those competitors. With that in mind, I think he’s going to do well (at LSU). He just needs a shot.”

Advocate sportswriter Joel Erickson contributed to this report.

Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.