Roll with it
Ohio State receivers learning to keep routes going when Fields scrambles
Matt Dickmann, the football coach at Harrison High School in suburban Atlanta, included scrambling drills in his teams’ preseason practices.
It was a way for wide receivers to build chemistry with quarterback Justin Fields.
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The script followed a pattern. As Fields rolled in one direction, the receivers on his side of the field were taught to run further downfield. Those on the opposite side were to cut toward the middle.
The exercise was not done against a defense. It was mostly to form the habit.
With Fields behind center, plays were rarely over. Receivers needed to keep running as Fields rolled or scrambled outside the pocket — even if it required ad-libbing on their part to keep up.
“That’s the one thing Justin has over a lot of quarterbacks,” Dickmann said. “A lot of times, quarterbacks make that move out of the pocket and they get sacked. With him, he can pull it down and get you 6 yards or more, or he might escape, stay behind the line of scrimmage and give himself a little more time to throw the ball.”
In most of Fields' three seasons starting for the varsity team at Harrison, spanning 2015 to 2017, the receivers proved quick studies.
Dickmann recalled that scrambling drills were part of their practices in the preseason, but only occasionally sprinkled throughout the season as receivers caught on to playing with Fields.
As Fields settles in as Ohio State’s starting quarterback this month, the receivers for the Buckeyes face a similar adjustment. Coach Ryan Day stressed the issue after the Buckeyes’ 42-0 win over Cincinnati on Saturday.
“Our receivers got to do a little bit better job of staying with him and getting open,” Day said. “We call it the second part of the route.”
Fields, a sophomore who transferred from Georgia this year, presents a different style from his predecessor at Ohio State. In his one season starting for the Buckeyes, former quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. mostly kept himself contained in the pocket before delivering passes.
As Dickmann watched a replay of the Buckeyes’ blowout win over Cincinnati later Saturday afternoon, he observed a few sequences that marked progress for the chemistry between Fields and his targets.
One that stood out was a connection with sophomore Chris Olave on a drive late in the second quarter.
Fields stepped outside the pocket, then moved far enough to his right that he went from one set of hash marks to the other. Olave, who noticed that Fields had moved to his side of the field, kept running.
It resulted in a 39-yard completion, setting up the Buckeyes’ offense inside the red zone. Olave caught the pass after moving further down the sideline, finishing the so-called second part of his route.
“Most of those kids are pretty athletic,” Dickmann said. “They’re going to find the quarterback if he scrambles and help him out.”
Three plays later, the Buckeyes went ahead of Cincinnati 28-0 when Fields hit Garrett Wilson for a 9-yard touchdown, one of his six scoring tosses in a fast start to the season.
After a practice three days before Ohio State faced Cincinnati, Olave noted that the receivers were mindful of staying with Fields when he scrambled. Olave said they had done their own scrambling drills in practice, leaving a similar emphasis.
“As he rolls out, we got to roll out with him,” Olave said. “Hopefully, he gets us on the roll. We have to get with him on that.”
Olave recalled that they hadn’t connected with Fields on any rollouts against Florida Atlantic in the season opener.
Fields’ mobility can breathe new life into plays. But Day has cautioned that he needs to be smart with his decision-making when outside the pocket, including figuring out when to throw the ball away. He liked certain instances and expressed concern over others, such as when Fields took a sack while rolling in the second quarter against Cincinnati. He should have thrown the ball away rather than take a loss.
But Day also acknowledged the obvious. Movement is one asset Fields provides.
“He can create,” Day said. “He can buy more time.”
Game time set
Ohio State's game against Miami University on Sept. 21 will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and be televised on the Big Ten Network.