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How Buckeyes will manage backup-quarterback battle

Ohio State coach Ryan Day has an intriguing situation at quarterback. (Courtesy/Ohio State Dept. of Athletics)

Ohio State Football

How Buckeyes will manage backup-quarterback battle

COLUMBUS — Ohio State needs to find out as much as it can about what it’s working with at quarterback during camp, but there’s a clear limit.

The Buckeyes obviously don’t need to learn much about Heisman Trophy frontrunner Justin Fields, which is a nice head start. And it also knows it could squeeze out a little extra information about freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller if it wanted to press the issue and take the black, non-contact jerseys off those talented young passers.

But second-year Ohio State coach Ryan Day isn’t planning on going down that path during the next three weeks of training camp, even if there might be at least some benefit to watching that battle unfold in a live setting. In a season where the Buckeyes are likely going to have their remarkable depth tested and at a position of such great importance, that’s a line Day isn’t likely to cross — as tempting as it might be.

“Probably not, but I’m not saying no,” Day said on Friday morning. “I’d like to see how this weekend goes and see what it looks like, see how it feels and take it one day at a time. I’m trying not to say always or never right now because things change so fast. It’s not something we’ve typically done, but it doesn’t mean we won’t do it. We’ve got to know what we have going into the first game if something were to happen. We’ll see, but as of right now, they’re not live.

Justin Fields-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is a known quantity for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

“I think all three of those guys, C.J., Jack and Gunnar [Hoak], have done a really good job of picking up the offense since they’ve been here — and they’re going to have to be ready to go. This year, you have to have depth at every position, and that’s a very important area where we have to make sure that those guys are ready. They’re one snap away, they’re one day away from being in that first game.”

Assuming Fields stays healthy, there’s clearly no uncertainty at the top of the pecking order for the Buckeyes. But the backup race is intriguing for Ohio State for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that Fields is unlikely to return for a third season with the program next year.

In the short term, it’s critical for the Buckeyes to establish contingency plans if something were to happen to Fields in order to keep the national-title contenders on track. And from that perspective, Hoak’s year of experience with the Buckeyes gives him something of a leg up on the newcomers as practices get more intense ahead of the opener against Nebraska later this month.

But in the long run, the dual between Stroud and Miller could be setting the course for the future of the program at quarterback. They also can’t be ruled out as pushing to take over that backup role behind Fields now, either. All of that plays into the thinking for Day and the coaching staff when they build a practice plan and decide how to distribute the reps for workouts like the one Saturday in the Horseshoe.

“You try to do everything you can to make sure Justin is ready to go,” Day said. “That’s the No. 1 priority. He gets the reps with the ones, and then we split up the reps with the twos. When we go to seven-on-seven, we try to equal them out a little bit more and allow those guys to get more reps.

“But really what we’re doing is Jack and C.J. are both getting a bunch of reps with the twos and then we try to mix Gunnar in as much as we can. Gunnar had last year [for experience], so we’re trying to get the other guys up and running because they didn’t have the spring or preseason to see where we’re at. It’s such a short preseason going into this. And then as time goes on, Gunnar will get more and more reps. But it’s been good.”

The presence of Fields surely makes it easier to spend a bit more time focusing on the future, though there’s only so much work that can be done there without sacrificing in the present.

One thing is certain, though: Justin Fields won’t be touched until at least Oct. 24.

“Not really,” Fields said when asked if he needed to be hit after the long layoff. “Last year I didn’t get hit before the season, so I think I’ll be fine.

“I don’t plan to get hit that much, really. And I hope I don’t get hit that much that first Nebraska game, so I don’t really have the urge to hit any more in camp.”

At least for now, the rest of the Ohio State quarterbacks should be safe from contact as well.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields spoke with the media on Friday. Full comments from those Buckeyes are available below, and all press conferences can be streamed on the Lettermen Row YouTube channel.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.