For the second year in a row, Ohio State’s annual spring game will be headlined by a starting quarterback competition.
This year’s competition, however, will look completely different than last year.
With Dwayne Haskins off to the NFL, Joe Burrow now at LSU and Tate Martell now at Miami, Justin Fields and Matthew Baldwin – neither of whom has ever played a single snap in Ohio Stadium, as Baldwin redshirted last year while Fields is newly arrived from Georgia – will take center stage on Saturday as they get their final opportunity of the spring to make their case for why they should be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback.
NOON – SATURDAY, APRIL 13
Saturday’s game is only one small part of the evaluation that will ultimately determine who leads Ohio State’s offense onto the field in its season opener against Florida Atlantic on Aug. 31, but it will be an opportunity to see how they perform in a game-like setting with a large crowd of fans watching every throw they make.
“The coaches are off the field, so now it’s their team,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said Wednesday when asked what he will be looking to see from his quarterbacks on Saturday. “How is their leadership? How do they manage the game? How does it look like managing plays, managing a drive, understanding situations, down and distance, field position … Energy level, body demeanor, all those things. And obviously, the ability to work the team down the field and score touchdowns.”
This year’s quarterback competition will feature different combatants from last year – with Chris Chugunov likely to get some snaps as well, though he’s firmly the third quarterback on the depth chart – and will also likely be formatted differently. While Haskins and Burrow started on opposite teams last year, with first-team players from each side of the ball mixed between the two teams, Day said Wednesday that Saturday’s game will feature “good on good” – meaning the first-team offense facing off against the first-team defense – which presumably means Fields and Baldwin will both take snaps with the same team, though they could alternate between running with the first- and second-team offenses.
(Update: Ohio State revealed its rosters for the spring game on Friday; Baldwin and Fields will both start the game as members of the Gray team, with the rest of the Buckeyes' first-team offensive players, while Chugunov will play for Scarlet, which features the first-team defense.)
Saturday’s game will also feature a new head coach, of course, with Day overseeing his first spring game as a head coach, along with five new assistant coaches – quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich, co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley, special teams coordinator and assistant secondary coach Matt Barnes and linebackers coach Al Washington – who will be coaching in Ohio Stadium as Buckeyes for the first time.
In multiple ways, Saturday’s scrimmage – which will be the final time the Buckeyes take the field this spring – will be more like a practice than a game. The quarters will be only 10 minutes long with a running clock in the second half, and players will be switching between the Scarlet and Gray teams over the course of the game in order to balance out the units. Perhaps the most stark difference from an actual game: Defenders will be instructed not to tackle players to the ground, though they will still be expected to run at full speed and hit ballcarriers (except for the quarterbacks, who will be wearing black jerseys and are considered “off-limits” for contact purposes).
“We can thud up aggressively, just don't take nobody to the ground,” linebacker Teradja Mitchell said after attending Ohio State’s Scholar-Athlete Dinner this week. “At the end of the day, we got to keep our teammates safe.”
Even with those restrictions, and though the coaching staff considers the first 14 practices of the spring to be just as important to their evaluations as Saturday’s scrimmage, Day believes it is important to have a spring game because of the opportunity it gives the Buckeyes’ less experienced players to take some snaps in the Shoe.
“It’s always good for the young guys to get out there and have the experience of walking through the tunnel, going through pregame, being in the locker room, all the different things that come up with it,” Day said. “So for the older guys, maybe not as important, that’s why we’ll get them out of the game pretty quickly, but let the younger guys go and feel what it’s like playing in the Shoe.”
In addition to Fields and Baldwin, Ohio State will have a highly touted class of early enrollee freshmen making their Ohio Stadium debuts, including five-star prospects Garrett Wilson and Zach Harrison. Fellow early enrollee Marcus Crowley is likely to see a significant chunk of the playing time at running back, as J.K. Dobbins will likely come out of the game early, Master Teague has been battling a nagging injury and Demario McCall is out with a calf injury.
The Buckeyes will be without some key veterans for Saturday’s spring game, including left tackle Thayer Munford, defensive tackle Robert Landers, linebacker Tuf Borland and safety Jordan Fuller, who have been sidelined by injuries this spring. Established veteran starters like Chase Young and K.J. Hill aren’t likely to stay in the game for long either. But that will give the young players who need the experience of playing in front of a large crowd of fans the opportunity to get it.
Although play calling is typically kept vanilla for spring games, as the Buckeyes aren’t going to want to unveil too many secrets before the actual games begin this fall, Saturday will be an opportunity to get a better idea of how the depth chart might stack up – since the first-team and second-team units on each side of the ball are expected to be kept intact – as well as to see the Buckeyes’ new defensive scheme, or at least the basic framework of it, in the Shoe for the first time.
“Just kind of want to see how some of the guys go out there and play,” Day said. “I think when you look at on defense, a lot of guys have experience, they’ve played a lot of football, but they’re in new schemes. You kind of how see they put that on the field, what that looks like in a game situation. On offense, we have guys who have some experience, but not a lot of game starts.”
Saturday’s spring game, which will feature field goals, extra points and punts but will not include kickoffs or punt returns, is scheduled to begin at noon at Ohio Stadium, which will have a capacity of 76,000 for Saturday’s game due to construction in C deck. Gates open at 10 a.m., and parking is free.
While last year’s spring game was threatened by inclement weather, no rain is forecast for Saturday.
The game will be broadcast live on BTN and 97.1 The Fan, and stay tuned with Eleven Warriors for coverage from the Shoe before, during and after Saturday’s game.
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