Ohio State’s fears of a worst-case scenario at the quarterback position — and the College Football Playoff hopes tied to it — lasted all of 10 days.
Some fortuitous availability helped. But what Buckeyes coach Ryan Day pulled off to fix a major hole in the most important position was nothing short of remarkable.
Ohio State knew it would take a hit when it brought in former 5-star quarterback Justin Fields, but what happened was about as bad as it gets. With Dwayne Haskins off to the NFL, Tate Martell transferred to Miami (Fla.) after the Buckeyes brought in Fields. Adding Fields, who enrolled in January, also helped chase off 2019 commitment Dwan Mathis, who flipped to Georgia during the early signing period. The truly unexpected happened when Matthew Baldwin announced his transfer April 18. All of a sudden, Ohio State’s cupboard was looking shockingly bare.
Ohio State 2019 QBs, as of Dec. 18
Jr. Dwayne Haskins
So. Tate Martell
R-Fr. Matthew Baldwin
5th-Sr. Chris Chugunov
So. Danny Vanatsky (walk-on)
4-star Dwan Mathis (committed)
Ohio State 2019 QBs, as of April 18
So. Justin Fields
5th-Sr. Chris Chugunov
So. Danny Vanatsky (walk-on)
That is … undesirable to say the least.
Although one was more immediate, the problems were twofold. The first and most important, of course, is that Chris Chugunov was one incident away from becoming Ohio State’s starting quarterback. Without being disrespectful, because he did play in a few games for West Virginia, any reasonable person would admit that when he transferred it was never the plan for him to end up so close to the top spot.
Finding someone more capable would require bringing in a capable graduate transfer to provide depth. Obviously, that’s not an easy sell when the starter is so deeply perceived as immovable that two players and a recruit left — especially since graduate transfers are usually looking to play.
Beyond that, though, the transfers cratered the future depth. Aside from the obvious departure of Dwayne Haskins to the NFL, Ohio State lost its signees from the Class of 2017 (Martell) and 2018 (Baldwin) and never signed anyone from 2019 (Mathis) because he flipped on the first day of the early signing period. The Buckeyes needed someone — anyone — to help plug the gap there, especially with Chugunov done after this fall and Vanatsky holding walk-on status. So, yeah, things weren’t looking too great for Day and Ohio State.
Ten days later, all is well. On Saturday night, Ohio State landed a perfect fit to back up Fields in Kentucky quarterback Gunnar Hoak, a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. Hoak played high school football for Dublin Coffman, and his family has a boatload of Buckeye connections. Hoak’s father (Frank) and uncle (Fred Pagac) both played for the Buckeyes, and Pagac was also an assistant coach.
“Ever since I was born at OSU hospital, some aspect of my life has involved scarlet and gray,” Hoak said in a statement posted to Twitter. “I’ve heard my Dad’s football stories with Coach [Earle] Bruce, I’ve seen my Uncle coach countless Buckeye games in The ‘Shoe, and watched my cousin win a National Championship. And while I have gained so much during my experience during my time in Lexington, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to continue a family legacy.”
One night previously, Ohio State had improved the problem of its complete absence of young players. JP Andrade, a 3-star prospect from California, committed to the Buckeyes as a preferred walk-on after visiting twice in April. Because he was a late bloomer, Andrade’s lone scholarship offers came from South Alabama and FCS programs Morehead State and Fordham. He waited out both the early signing period and National Signing Day waiting for something else to materialize, and he and the Buckeyes were able to solve each of their problems.
Now, one thing is fair to admit. It worked out quite nicely that a solid player who was a Columbus native and had family ties to Ohio State ended up in the transfer portal. It also didn’t hurt that a 3-star quarterback chose not to settle for a school he didn’t want to be at and waited out something better.
But with that being said, neither of these additions were sure things. Gunnar Hoak is a good enough player to limit the damage if something happened to Fields. He wasn’t playing at Kentucky. It’s pretty clear that he will not be the starter at Ohio State, even if Day will provide a legitimate competition in training camp.
Convincing a player who is transferring because he’s a backup to choose another school where he’s even more likely to be a backup is easier said than done. Ohio State is of course a better option than Kentucky, playing time being equal. But playing time didn’t have to be equal. Those weren’t his only two choices. So credit to Day for landing someone who could have chased an easier path to the field and possibly increased his odds of extending his playing career.
The same goes for Andrade. Yes, it’s quite lucky for Ohio State that a reasonably talented (albeit raw) quarterback was available in April, nearly three months after National Signing Day. That probably doesn’t happen very often. And yes, Ohio State is a great program that can change a player’s life. But Day needed to get this done without messing with the scholarship situation, and it’s never an easy sell to ask someone to foot the bill to be a backup across the country.
Is Ohio State better than if Martell and Baldwin hadn’t left? Of course not. But that’s the price you pay as a program when you bring in an elite talent with a lot of eligibility remaining and install him as the de facto starter. However, it’s important to remember how much worse this could have been — and was.
Without these players, Ohio State was looking at an impossibly thin depth chart. Now coaches, players and fans can sleep well at night knowing that the Buckeyes have a solid backup and a Class of 2019 member who gives the team a solid young player who can grow without costing a scholarship.
That looks like a masterful fix given the timing and circumstances, and it only took Ryan Day 10 days to go from nightmare to peaceful sleep.