Early in the third quarter of Georgia's rout of Tennessee last September, quarterback Justin Fields took a snap out of the shotgun inside the red zone, faked a handoff to a running back and sprang toward the sideline.
Once he skated past the line of scrimmage, Fields squeezed through a handful of linebackers and defensive backs before leaping across the goal line for a 12-yard touchdown run.
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The sequence offered a glimpse into the potential for Fields, who was the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in his high school recruiting class. Analysts remarked about his running ability as much as his throwing, a talent that was visible when he was cutting through the Volunteers defense as a freshman.
But it remains to be seen how much Fields, who transferred to Ohio State and was named the starter Monday, will run once the season begins against Florida Atlantic next Saturday.
Coach Ryan Day expressed some caution about the idea.
“I'm not comfortable with him taking a lot of hits in the course of a game,” Day said. “I think that those are all things that are going to be really calculated down to the last carry. Because he has such a great skill set, you can do a lot of things with him. You have to be smart with that.”
Day, who will serve as the primary play-caller, has garnered a reputation for molding an offense around his quarterbacks’skill sets. In this instance, that includes Fields’ athleticism.
Georgia largely used Fields as a runner last season while he was the backup behind Jake Fromm, putting him in certain situations that allowed him to use his legs. Because Fromm was the starter, there was much less risk involved in letting Fields take off. He ultimately averaged six carries per game with the Bulldogs.
There is little experience behind Fields on the depth chart at Ohio State, with only two other scholarship quarterbacks — Kentucky graduate transfer Gunnar Hoak and Chris Chugunov. It makes keeping Fields free from injury a high priority.
The calculation for Day involves trying to script certain runs because some play calls might better protect Fields.
“There's certain heavy, heavy runs where he's going to have to go in there and take shots from linebackers,” Day said. “There's other ones where he's squirting out to the sideline, stepping out of bounds.”
Fields said he needed to take measures as well, largely related to his running style.
It was not much of a consideration a year ago.
“Sliding and making smart decisions when those times come is definitely going to be a change for me,” Fields said. “Last year, I was trying to get everything and just try to make a play on every play. So I definitely have to be smarter this year.”
Fields often fought for extra yards. When he was surrounded by three defenders on a third-quarter run against Massachusetts, Fields churned his legs to spring a longer gain.
Day pointed to Kyler Murray, Oklahoma's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, as a good model for how to balance running with protecting himself.
“You saw him kind of squirt out for 7 yards, slide, get out of there,” Day said.
Ultimately, it remains a balancing act. The Buckeyes need to benefit from Fields’ skills if they are to mount a return to the College Football Playoff. They also will have great trouble getting there should he suffer a significant injury.