ARLINGTON, Texas — Two years ago, Cardale Jones infamously let the world know that he didn't come to Ohio State to "play school."
As it turns out, he was right. Cardale Jones came to Columbus to win national championships.
The unlikeliest of heroes when the 2014 season began, Jones capped off an improbable three-game stretch on Monday night, leading the Buckeyes to the inaugural College Football Playoff championship with a 42-20 win over Oregon. But the Jones era at Ohio State may ultimately wind up as short as it's been sweet, as the 6'5", 250-pounder's next step very well may be the NFL.
A third-year sophomore four years removed from high school graduation, Jones is eligible to enter the upcoming draft as an underclassmen. At 22 years old and with a newborn daughter at home, the timing seems to be right for Jones to turn pro, especially given the stellar three starts that comprise his college career.
That's where Jones' upcoming decision—he has until Jan. 15 (Thursday) to declare for the draft—becomes tricky. It's hard to imagine a quarterback prospect having as small of a sample size as Jones has, much less one such QB being picked early in the draft. However, what Cleveland's Glenville product has put on film could cause quite the conundrum inside draft war rooms.
“As an athlete, it’s all there," Bleacher Report Lead Draft Analyst Matt Miller told me. "He’s huge. His arm is amazing. It would be the best arm in this year’s draft. He grades great throwing it to every level of the field. Really good anticipation too. That’s what surprises me most; his ability to see the field, anticipate and get it out quickly, so he’s doing a good job there."
Miller projects that, depending on how Jones performs in workouts and interviews, he would likely wind up as a second- or third-round pick in the upcoming draft.
While Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota appear to be the only surefire first-round signal-callers in 2015, Jones makes for an intriguing-enough prospect that he could ultimately bypass UCLA's Brett Hundley and Baylor's Bryce Petty to become the third quarterback selected this spring.
Asked for an NFL comparison for Jones, Miller pointed to Cam Newton, whom the Carolina Panthers selected first overall in 2011.
"There aren’t many guys who are that big, that fast and have an arm like that," Miller said. "Cam was so inexperienced when he came out of Auburn too. He had one year in the NCAA and really didn’t work in a real advanced-passing offense. He was just kind of an athlete with a big arm, and I think Jones is the same thing.”
But the 6'5", 248-pound Newton had at least had a full season under his belt, capturing a Heisman Trophy en route to leading Auburn to a national championship in 2010. While Jones' three starts may have been on the three largest stages possible, they still are only three starts. That leaves many to wonder what he'd look like—for better or worse—with an entire season under his belt.
Miller, however, says that Jones' experience—or lack thereof—could ultimately work in his favor. With fewer games to pick apart, teams will find fewer reasons to fall out of love with the national-champion quarterback, and thus, they could be more willing to spend a valuable draft pick on his services.
"He hasn’t had as many games to scrutinize, so you’re going to have to guess a little bit," Miller said. "You’re looking at three games on film where he dominated people, so a lot of it is going to come down to what he can do on the white board and how teams feel about him as a leader.”
As Jones has seemingly matured since his ill-advised tweet two years ago, it wouldn't be surprising to see him charm a team during the interview process. His ability to step right in after sitting on the bench for the better part of the Buckeyes' first 12 games also indicates a high football IQ, a line of thinking that has been corroborated by Jones' coaches and teammates throughout his incredible three-game run.
And while he certainly makes for a promising NFL prospect, the likelihood that he'd be drafted isn't the only reason Jones may look to jump-start his professional career.
Although he could be one of the better quarterbacks in this year's draft, Jones might not even be the best quarterback on Ohio State's roster, with injured third-team All-American J.T. Barrett and two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller both currently slated to return to Columbus in 2015.
Jones would be the only healthy quarterback for the Buckeyes' spring practice session, and it'd be tough for Urban Meyer to justify benching a quarterback who just led his team to a national title. But at the very least, Jones' starting spot would be anything but secure, with two high-profile backups potentially sitting behind him.
Jones, for his part, has maintained that he'll return to Columbus for his senior season, going as far to say that he will "definitely" be back at Ohio State. But with scouts drooling over Jones' ability throughout his third impressive performance in as many games, his thinking could very well change, since there isn't a more intriguing draft prospect than Jones at this very moment.
"I could see someone falling in love with him and going crazy," Miller said.
Ohio State fans already have.
Will the NFL be next?
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.