With Fields gone, battle to become Ohio State's next quarterback heats up

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Their responsibility is immense. Their experience is virtually nil.

That’s the scenario at quarterback for the Ohio State football team as the Buckeyes start to pivot to the 2021 season.

With Ohio State coach Ryan Day looking on, backup quarterback C.J. Stroud warms up before the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern.

Justin Fields is off to the NFL, where he will be taken early in the draft. His successor will be someone who has not thrown a collegiate pass. Freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jake Miller played only in mop-up time during the abbreviated 2020 season.

“I wish we were further along,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said on Friday. “I wish they had gotten more game reps. You don't really know what you have in a quarterback until they're playing in the game. These guys have very, very limited reps.”

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Stroud filled in when Fields missed one snap against Clemson after being speared, but Day said no one is ahead in the pecking order.

“I don't think that either of them is further along than the other,” Day said. “I think we'll get a better feel for that in the spring.”

Stroud and Miller will compete with early-enrollee freshman Kyle McCord, a five-star recruit from Philadelphia. Normally, a redshirt freshman would be well ahead of a true freshman, but the pandemic meant that 2020 was anything but a normal year. The Buckeyes had only a couple of practices before COVID-19 hit, and players went home after the Woody Hayes Athletic Center was closed.

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Ohio State hoped to get the freshmen a decent amount of playing time during the season, but the shortened schedule and lack of blowouts kept that from happening.

Ohio State quarterbacks Justin Fields, left, and Jack Miller shake hands after the Buckeyes' loss to Alabama in the national championship game.

Day said he plans to modify spring practice to create game-like situations in hopes that one of the quarterbacks asserts himself.

“We can’t go into the first game without knowing (the starter), or at least having an idea,” Day said. “I guess we’ll never know until we’re in a game. But we’ve got to simulate the games the best we can in practice, which may be a unique way of doing the spring.”

Miller committed to Ohio State on July 1, 2018. For most of that recruiting cycle, it looked as if he’d be the sole quarterback in the 2020 class. Then Stroud emerged as a late-bloomer and the Buckeyes pursued him hard.

“They're both young,” Day said. “They're both still learning the offense and figuring it out. It's hard when you go from your high school to a college system. We ask a lot of our quarterbacks in the run game, in the pass game. And really, with COVID and everything that went on this year, it was just very, very unique.”

The coaching staff tried to compensate for the lack of game experience in other ways to hasten the learning curve, to the point that Day said that they needed a break.

“There's just a mental exhaustion right there,” he said. “They did a good job of (handling) it, better than I expected. But at the same time, I know they were looking for a little bit of a break as they got through the last game.”

That reprieve will be a short one. The Buckeyes begin their offseason program on Feb. 1, and Day said Stroud and Miller need to become physically stronger. Mickey Marotti’s workouts are a grind for every player, and the coming months will be even more of one for the quarterbacks.

“As they come back on campus and get going, now they're fighting to be the starter, and with that comes great responsibility,” Day said. “Being the starting quarterback at Ohio State is unlike any other position there is.

"I think they get that. I think they understand it. They were able to see this year what Justin did, and the stage (it is). The stakes are very, very high here. I think they learned that.”

Day doesn’t have a timetable for establishing a starter.

“Usually in these situations, it kind of it takes care of itself and somebody steps up,” Day said. “And if they don't, we keep rolling from there.”

If nobody emerges during the 15 spring practices, Day will view the start of fall camp as simply a continuation of the process. What he hopes for is a quarterback who will stick around for a few years.

Dwayne Haskins Jr. started for only one season. The coaching staff expected him to be a multi-year starter, but he left for the NFL after his dazzling 2018 season. Fields then transferred in from Georgia and excelled for two years.

If Stroud or Miller wins the job, they won’t be eligible to enter the NFL for two more years. McCord can’t turn pro until 2024. Next year, assuming he doesn’t renege on his commitment, the top overall player in the 2022 recruiting class arrives — quarterback Quinn Ewers of Southlake, Texas.

That’s the long-term picture. The short-term view is murkier.

“There's still a lot to be worked through as we get into next September,” Day said.