CHICAGO – From the moment in early January that Justin Fields announced he was transferring to Ohio State, it has been widely expected that he will be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback this season.
You still won’t hear Ryan Day say that yet, though.
Ohio State’s new head coach wants Fields to earn the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback job, and in Day’s mind, Fields hasn’t done that yet. Even though Matthew Baldwin transferred to TCU after competing with Fields for the starting quarterback job this spring, Fields still has to compete with Gunnar Hoak – who arrived this summer as a graduate transfer from Kentucky – when preseason camp begins in August.
“Justin and Gunnar are going to compete like heck to win the job, but at the end of the day, it's going to come down to who can play the game,” Day said Thursday at Big Ten Media Days.
Fields has still only been on campus for just over six months, so while he’s clearly the frontrunner to be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback for their season opener on Aug. 31, that’s more the case due to the talent he came in with than anything he’s done at Ohio State yet. No matter how highly touted a player is as a recruit, he’s expected to prove he’s ready to play with his performance on the practice field, and Day said that still needs to happen in the weeks leading up to the start of the season.
“One of our core philosophies is that you don't just get given a starting position. You earn everything you get around here, and he hasn't done that,” Day said. “I know everybody wants to get way ahead of themselves and start talking about Heisman, but how about winning the starting quarterback job first? Because you can't win the job when you're still learning the offense. He learned the offense in the spring. He's got a step ahead of Gunnar because Gunnar just got here and he didn't even go through the spring.”
As he has throughout the spring and summer, Day cautioned that because Dwayne Haskins already had two years at Ohio State before he became the starter last year, it shouldn’t be expected that Fields will simply pick up where Haskins left off.
“A lot of people think well, Dwayne went from zero to 60 so fast and he just kind of jumped into the Heisman Trophy race, and that will happen (again),” Day said. “Well, that was a very different scenario than Justin Fields. Justin hasn’t won the job yet. That’s the first step in all this.”
“I know everybody wants to get way ahead of themselves and start talking about Heisman, but how about winning the starting quarterback job first? Because you can't win the job when you're still learning the offense.”– Ryan Day on the expectations surrounding Justin Fields
Fields enters his first season at Ohio State surrounded by as much hype as any Ohio State quarterback has ever had before actually playing in a game for the Buckeyes, which stems from the fact that he was the No. 2 overall recruit in the high school class of 2018.
Day believes it is “really important” for he and his fellow coaches, including quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Mike Yurcich, to manage those expectations and make sure Fields doesn’t get caught up in them.
“I think that's really important for the quarterback to understand week in and week out what his role is, week in and week out how the game is going to be different, week in and week out how social media is handling everything,” Day said. “Good, bad or indifferent. One of the things we had to deal with last year with Dwayne was it went from zero to 60 so fast, and it was all positive, and how do you now keep your expectations under control based on where he was at in his development at that point. Or after the Iowa game two years ago, dealing with J.T. (Barrett) and social media there, those are two extreme situations. But I think counseling a quarterback, especially at that age in college, is critical week-to-week.”
That’s not to say that Day doesn’t like what he’s seen from Fields so far, though.
While he hasn’t had the chance to actually coach Fields in a football practice since the spring game in April, he said Fields has been doing a good job organizing throwing workouts with his receivers – K.J. Hill said Thursday that the quarterbacks and receivers have throwing sessions “just about every day” – and Day said the receivers have reported back to him that those workouts are “going really, really well.”
“He has a strong arm,” Hill said. “He had to get used to the receivers, the routes, different offense, but I feel like Justin can bring a lot to the offense.”
While Day has said since April that he didn’t anticipate naming a starting quarterback before preseason camp, he doesn’t want to wait too much longer to make that decision. Ideally, Day wants to name a starting quarterback within the first two weeks of camp so that the Buckeyes can move forward with that quarterback in preparation for the season opener.
“You'd like to get it done in the first couple weeks of camp, for sure,” Day said. “You’d like to think you know who that is.”
Day is open to keeping the competition open beyond then, though, if neither quarterback separates himself from the other.
“If it goes into the third week of preseason camp, then either they’re both competing at a high level or nobody’s stepped up yet,” Day said. “So we’d like to have it within the second week of camp, but if not, then we'll just keep it going. You just don't know what it's going to look like. Someone could step off a curb tomorrow, and you just don’t know.”