When Justin Fields sat down in front of a table of microphones in February and spoke for the first time about his decision to transfer from Georgia to Ohio State, he encountered a question on the minds of many.
As a dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school, how would he handle the prospect of being more of a pocket-passer under his new coach, Ryan Day?
In high school, Fields was lauded for his running ability as much as his strong arm. But the Buckeyes quarterback last season, Dwayne Haskins Jr., operated as a more traditional passer under Day, who was offensive coordinator before succeeding Urban Meyer as head coach in January.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
Asked how much he would use his legs in the fall, Fields conceded that he was more likely than Haskins to run, but otherwise said he was looking to Day for direction. That has led Fields to focus in the offseason on his development as a passer, placing an emphasis on tighter footwork in the pocket.
When he visited Kennesaw, Georgia, his hometown north of Atlanta, for two weeks this month, Fields had more than a half-dozen workouts with private quarterbacks coach Ron Veal in which he focused on quickening the steps in his dropback. A dropback in which Fields quickly backpedals into the pocket is a development that allows him to go through his progressions and read defensive coverages faster.
“If your drop is slow, you only probably have got one read,” Veal said.
Making more reads means identifying more potential receiving targets.
“He wants to rely on his arm and his mind to make these reads and use his feet when necessary,” Veal said. “His feet are a weapon that I’m sure Ohio State will use periodically, but he doesn’t want to make that the main part of his game.”
Fields began training with Veal when he was in the sixth grade after attending one of Veal's camps for middle school and high school players. A University of Arizona quarterback in the late 1980s, Veal has trained quarterbacks in the Atlanta area for over a decade, including Clemson star Trevor Lawrence. Veal said he prioritizes a variety of skills with quarterbacks.
Fields brought up his footwork after Ohio State coaches stressed it during spring practice. But during the months between spring practice and preseason training camp, players cannot practice with their college coaches, leaving them to look elsewhere for skill development. During the workouts with Veal, Fields used a variety of drills from spring practice and threw passes to wide receivers. Mostly, it was additional reps.
“You have to rep it,” Veal said. “A guy playing in the major leagues takes a million ground balls in any season. You do it so he becomes fundamentally sound and it becomes second nature, so when I get a bad hop or something that’s not routine, then I can handle it with ease and make the play.
"That’s the same thing with quarterbacking. Can I do it over and over so it becomes a routine movement, where I don’t panic and just put the ball in play?”
Fields is largely inexperienced as a college passer. Although he appeared in 12 games as a freshman at Georgia backing up Jake Fromm, he was used more as a runner, rushing 42 times compared with throwing 39 passes. Bulldogs coaches mostly put him in situations that involved zone-read plays, giving him a chance to run, using athleticism that Fromm lacked.
Fields saw transferring to Ohio State as a chance to sharpen his passing abilities under Day, a former NFL quarterbacks coach who has built a reputation working with Haskins and his predecessor, J.T. Barrett, the past two seasons.
“If he wants to go to the next level, he’s got to continue to develop and develop and develop,” Veal said.
But Fields’ growth as a passer, particularly his footwork, also holds a practical element. While Fields is behind center at Ohio State, there will be no shortage of talented skill players for him to find.
“The main thing with any offense is getting the ball out of your hands,” Veal said. “They got too many athletes not to have it. So we don’t need a quarterback sitting back and holding the ball. We need him getting the ball out of his hands and into these playmakers' hands.”