QB battle promises to be a doozy

Bill Rabinowitz
Quarterback Tate Martell was praised by receiver Terry McLaurin for his competitiveness. "He really wants to win,” McLaurin said. [Adam Cairns / Dispatch]

And you thought last year’s Ohio State quarterback competition was intriguing.

The three-way battle between Justin Fields, Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin this year could make last year’s between Dwayne Haskins Jr., Joe Burrow and Martell look tepid.

Last year, all three contenders had been through a season together with quarterbacks coach Ryan Day behind starter J.T. Barrett. They were competitors but they also regarded each other as friends.

This year’s battle will have a different dynamic, assuming that Haskins enters the 2019 NFL draft after his record-breaking season. Fields announced his transfer to Ohio State from Georgia on Friday, capping weeks of speculation.

A year ago, Fields was the second-ranked prospect in the country. He trailed only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has led the Tigers to Monday’s College Football playoff championship game. Fields is the highest-ranked quarterback that Ohio State has ever had, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.

“Athletically, he’s off the charts,” said Matt Dickmann, Fields’ coach at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. “He’s one of the most dynamic players I’ve ever gotten to coach in 32 years.

“He checks all the boxes. He doesn’t just check this box and that box. He can run. He can throw. He’s very intelligent. He’s a hard worker and has a great attitude.”

Fields signed with Georgia last year, even though freshman quarterback Jake Fromm led the Bulldogs to the CFP title game. Fields was unable to win the job and put his name in the NCAA transfer portal last month. Ohio State was immediately reported to be among the possible destinations.

Martell was clearly aware of that because he tweeted a not-so-cryptic message on Dec. 21.

“word of advice: ——————— - don’t swing and miss ... especially not your second time,” he posted.

At the Rose Bowl media day, Martell said that he would be the starter next year if Haskins left. He based that in part on his belief that Day’s offense is too complex to learn in less than a year. Spring practice starts in March.

Dickmann and Quincy Avery, who is Fields’ private quarterback coach (and also has worked with Haskins), say that Fields has the intelligence to learn playbooks rapidly. Avery pointed to Fields’ performance in winning MVP at the 2017 Elite 11 competition in Oregon, which features the top prospects in the country.

“I think Justin’s capacity to learn is at a high level,” Avery said. “The playbook we gave them at Elite 11 was a pro playbook and he was able to grasp that very, very quickly.

“He was able to pick up all the details and nuances in a very short period of time. I think that’s a talent and skill not a lot of people have.”

Martell came to Ohio State highly decorated as well, having won the Gatorade Player of the Year twice in an undefeated career at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas. At 5 feet 11, Martell is used to critics discounting him

“Tate is a really competitive guy,” senior receiver Terry McLaurin said. “What he lacks in possibly height or the physicals, his competitiveness really shows when he gets amongst the team. He really wants to win.”

Baldwin, who also played at a high school power — Lake Travis in Austin, Texas — shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Baldwin was Day’s first recruit as Buckeyes quarterbacks coach and is quietly confident about his ability. The freshman redshirted this year while rehabbing a torn knee ligament. Baldwin did more during bowl practice and impressed his teammates.

Before Fields can compete for the job, the NCAA must issue him a waiver to avoid having to sit out a year as a transfer. That used to be close to an iron-clad rule, meant to discourage players switching schools like free agents. But the NCAA has been increasingly lenient in granting them. Fields is expected to receive one.

The other unknown involves the coaching staff. With Day’s ascension to head coach, Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich was hired last week as quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator.

He will presumably start with a clean slate. For three quarterbacks looking for their shot, it will make for quite an interesting battle.

“The best player is going to play here,” Baldwin said. “There’s no politics.”

Buckle up.


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