Former Ohio State players Doran Grant (left), Cardale Jones (center) and Tracy Sprinkle (right) play together for the XFL’s D.C. Defenders. Credit: Lantern File Photo

Three young men from Northeast Ohio who contributed to Ohio State’s 2014 National Championship all found themselves in the NFL’s doghouse at the start of the 2019 season. 

Tracy Sprinkle, Doran Grant and Cardale Jones — the backup quarterback who took the reins after Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett went down with injuries and rallied the Buckeyes to a National Championship — were all destined for NFL glory.

Or so they hoped. 

All three bounced from team to team in the NFL, struggling to make it past the practice squads to which they were relegated.

Enter the XFL, an alternative football league with a few rule modifications that is played in the spring following the Super Bowl. The relaunched league offers football players another route to professional football and serves as a second chance for both the players and the league itself. 

“At first I wasn’t gonna do it and then I thought of it, like man, I put a lot of work in over the years — why not come out here and still compete?” Grant, an Ohio State cornerback from 2011 to ‘14, said. “So, I have to say it’s a great opportunity at the end of the day.”

The league initially ran for one season in 2001, but failed due to financial loss and poor ratings. Now the league has a chance to renew itself, as do its players. 

The three former Buckeyes have all seized the opportunity offered by the XFL to continue fostering their love of football. The only three Ohio State alumni in the league, Grant, Jones and Sprinkle, were reunited on the D.C. Defenders. 

“It speaks to the strength of Ohio State’s program,” Sprinkle, an Ohio State defensive tackle from 2013 to’17, said. “The evaluators in D.C., they obviously wanted to have some Buckeyes on their team. I think they made a smart decision.”

Jones said he loves the familiarity in the locker room. His relationship with Sprinkle dates back to their time at Ohio State, but he and Grant have a history together from high school, Jones said.

Jones and Grant’s respective high schools, Cleveland’s Glenville High School and Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, are 45 miles apart. Jones said they were in the same grade, played in the same All-Star game and did media events together before they got to Ohio State. 

The Northeast Ohio connection strengthened when Sprinkle came to Ohio State, Jones said. 

“Just being from Northeast Ohio –– Elyria area –– me and him kind of gravitated to each other,” Jones said.

Their shared background, as well as the success they experienced on the 2014 National Championship team, comforts them, Sprinkle said.

“Our coach always told us the relationships you build in college you’re gonna have forever,” Sprinkle said. “We built those relationships — especially that long national championship run we had together, that holds close to all of our hearts. So we all share that special bond with each other.”

This bond has carried over to the XFL, which promises to focus 100 percent on football, but with different rules for kickoffs, points after touchdown, special teams and a 25-second play clock. 

“I think it’s exciting. It’s quality football players. It’s a quality product,” Grant said. “The opportunity to play, the differences with the cameras, how the fans seem to be a little more in depth with the teams.” 

The D.C. fans have embraced the Defenders and the three Buckeyes with open arms, Jones said. 

“We have an unbelievable fan base here,” he said. “The alumni base as far as Ohio State in D.C. and they come out and support and show it each and every week as well.”

Jones was the first player assigned to the Defenders prior to the 2019 XFL Draft in October, and in the first XFL game in 19 years, he led them to a 31-19 victory against the Seattle Dragons, drawing an average of 3.3 million viewers. 

According to an ESPN public relations tweet, Ohio was a major market for the game. Cleveland was the second-largest national viewer of the game after Seattle. Columbus was third.

The viewership was not lost on the three former Buckeyes. 

“I’m Ohio born and bred, and to see Cleveland, Ohio, being the second most in America to support myself, Cardale Jones, Doran Grant, who’s all from that area — I just want to express extreme gratitude for that,” Sprinkle said. 

Audi Field is not Ohio Stadium, but with three former Buckeyes playing there, it might just be the next best thing until August.