Ohio State has options at quarterback behind Justin Fields, but no clear-cut backup

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Jack Miller throws during a drill in Ohio Stadium on Oct. 3. He and C.J. Stroud, watching him throw, enrolled early at Ohio State but got limited exposure to the offense because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Quarterback Gunnar Hoak (12) returns for a second season at Ohio State, but he hasn't had much game experience in college.

Corey Dennis sidestepped the question this week when asked to identify Ohio State’s backup quarterback.

But the first-year quarterbacks coach expressed confidence in Gunnar Hoak, Jack Miller and C.J. Stroud should any of them be called on to replace Justin Fields if the Buckeyes’ star is sidelined.  

“There’s no doubt they’d be ready to go,” Dennis said. “They know the offense. They're continuing to get better. They're continuing to grow and learn.”

The dynamic on the depth chart behind Fields stands out less than two weeks before the start of the season.

The Buckeyes’ No. 2 quarterback was called on last season. In the third quarter of a win at archrival Michigan, Chris Chugunov replaced Fields for part of a series after he aggravated a knee injury.

Options for backups this fall range from a fifth-year senior in Hoak to a pair of freshmen in Miller and Stroud, who were decorated high school recruits but lack the benefits of a full offseason with the program.

Miller and Stroud previously hoped for a longer period of development before this season. They enrolled a semester early in order to participate in spring practices, but those were cancelled in March due to the coronavirus pandemic after only three workouts.

Players did not return to campus for workouts for three months, cutting back their period for adjustment.  

Considering the circumstances, Dennis appeared pleased with their development but said the freshmen missed out on the live repetitions that accompany a typical spring with the program.

“Those guys are grinding in the Zoom meetings, things like that,” Dennis said, “and you can talk about it, you can show film, you can show diagrams, and you can walk through it, but those live reps are things that are hard to come by.”

Reps could have especially benefited Miller, who was sidelined by injuries late in his high school career.

Hoak, a Dublin Coffman graduate, gives the Buckeyes a backup option who is entering his second season with the program.

A graduate transfer from Kentucky, he arrived at Ohio State in the summer of 2019 and spent last season as one of the three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, backing up Fields alongside Chugunov.

“Any time that you're in the offense for the second year, getting to be around this verbiage and things like that, that's definitely a benefit to you,” Dennis said. “But Gunnar's smart, he knows our offense, he's a great player, he is a great leader.

“He's one of those guys, too, that the young guys can look up to and see the way that things are supposed to be handled. Gunnar’s extremely valuable.”

While a roster veteran, Hoak still has limited experience in games. Over four seasons at Kentucky and Ohio State, he's appeared in only eight games and attempted 32 passes.

The importance of depth at quarterback is likely to be even more significant this fall due to the potential effects of the pandemic.

If a player tests positive for COVID-19, he is prevented from participating in a game for at least 21 days, part of the protocols established by the Big Ten. 

Dennis acknowledged the effect a positive test could have on the top of the depth chart. He stressed the idea among the quarterbacks in their preparation for the season. A positive COVID-19 test looms as large as a potential injury.

“You truly have to prepare like you're the starter,” Dennis said, “because you don't know when your number's called. It's not like the old school, a guy got dinged up on a play or whatever it is. It truly could happen tomorrow. So everyone in that room is going to prepare like they're the starting quarterback at Ohio State.”