COLUMBUS — The feat isn’t all that rare, but somehow it’s eluded Ohio State coach Ryan Day throughout his career.
But he’s finally about to have the same starting quarterback for two years in a row, which could open up some frightening possibilities considering just how successful he’s been tutoring passers with only one season to work with them.
Perhaps even more terrifying for Ohio State opponents this year? The guy coming back with experience has already been a Heisman Trophy finalist, and Justin Fields still has room to grow.
“We have a list of things that he’s working on to get better at,” Day said heading into spring camp in March. “But a lot of it is just learning to play the position in terms of this past season — as time went along he got more and more responsibility and it’s now kind of Year Two. So now we spent a lot of time talking about the intricacies of the position — protections, route progressions, coverages — things like that where we can get a little more involved and start to explain the playbook a little more.
“The idea is for [the jump] to be big. And I think when you saw what Dwayne [Haskins] did in that year, you see what Joe [Burrow] did, there was a lot of years behind closed doors of a lot of work being done in the meeting room, on the field, in practice. And you get to see where they ended up, where it’s hard to do that when you don’t have all of those reps under your belt.”
Fields had never been a starter before arriving last year and taking the reins for the Buckeyes, but he clearly zipped through the learning curve. And figuring out just how high his ceiling is at Ohio State is a key question Lettermen Row is asking as it kicks off Quarterback Week with some pressing topics for the most important position on the field.
What can Justin Fields do for encore?
Justin Fields has already proven he can make virtually any throw on the football field. His athleticism makes him one of the most dangerous dual-threat options in the country. And he’s also left no doubt about his toughness and willingness to do anything to help the Buckeyes win.
So, what else can he do for Ohio State and how will his experience allow the coaching staff to keep evolving the offense around his skills? Simply having a healthy version of Fields after he was clearly limited during the postseason last year opens up the entire playbook for the Buckeyes, and it will be interesting to see if the program calls on him more as a rushing threat now that record-breaking tailback J.K. Dobbins is gone. Fields has always seemed to prefer to use his arm instead of his legs when possible, and even with talent behind him, Ohio State will surely want to show some restraint with his number of carries to keep him as protected as possible.
But when looking at where his statistics might potentially change during his Heisman campaign, his rushing totals are the most obvious place to start.
Who will win Ohio State backup job?
Experience can be the X-factor in position battles, and that wound up working against Gunnar Hoak when arrived as a transfer last summer aiming to be the backup behind Fields. But now with a year under his belt in the Ohio State system, this time around it might work in his favor as he battles against a pair of true freshmen for the second spot on the depth chart.
Both C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller have impressive physical tools and were able to get a slight jumpstart on their development during winter conditioning and the abbreviated spring camp. But Hoak’s familiarity with the playbook, the reps he got in a couple blowouts last season and perhaps some underrated skills with his arm could give him the edge heading into the season. If the Buckeyes were preparing for a game right now, Hoak would almost certainly be the next option after Fields.
How quickly can freshmen get up to speed for Buckeyes?
One practice is about the smallest sample size available, but C.J. Stroud was clearly flashing his potential in March during his first workout with the Buckeyes. Unfortunately for both him and Miller, there would only be two more practices before the pandemic forced programs around the country to cancel spring camps and lock players out of team facilities — a ban that will be lifted for Ohio State next week.
That camp was going to be a huge deal for the early enrollees as Stroud and Miller tried to gear up to compete for the starting job. But beyond trying to back up Fields this year, those sessions were also setting the foundation of a much more pressing battle that will linger into next season as the two duel to become the next starter for the Buckeyes. Stroud has dual-threat ability, a confident swagger and a style that is reminiscent of Haskins. Miller has a big arm, he’s more mobile than he tends to get credit for and was an early recruiting target for Day for a reason. Two quarterbacks signing in the same class ensures they will always be compared against each, and it’s going to be wildly entertaining to watch those talented quarterbacks push each other to improve.
Can Corey Dennis keep Ohio State quarterbacks rolling?
Obviously it helps that the head coach knows a thing or two about developing passers and putting them in systems that play to their strengths. That’s certainly a nice security blanket for Corey Dennis, but by now he probably doesn’t need it after learning under Day’s wings for the last few years and proving that he was ready for the full-time role when the opportunity arrived in the offseason.
Of course, it’s also true that the spotlight will be bright on the first-time coach with Day trusting him with both the most important position on the roster in his hands and a Heisman Trophy candidate. Dennis has been around the program long enough to know the expectation, though, and he’s quietly been earning rave reviews from the decorated quarterbacks he’s worked with while serving as the senior quality control coach for the Buckeyes. This shutdown threw a wrinkle at Dennis and the quarterbacks as they had to work remotely, but so far all indications suggest Day’s faith in him will pay off for Ohio State.
Will Justin Fields win Heisman Trophy?
Assuming he stays healthy, it’s tough to bet against Justin Fields ending Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy drought and claiming the program’s first stiff-arm statue since Troy Smith in 2006. The junior is simply a generational talent, he’s playing behind one of the nation’s best offensive lines with a dynamic set of skill weapons at his disposal and he’s playing in a system that is breaking offensive records seemingly every year.
If Fields leads Ohio State to another perfect record during the regular season on the way to the Big Ten championship, he’s going back to New York again in December. And this time he’s got a great shot of bringing the trophy back home with him to Columbus.