Justin Fields has pull.
So much pull that had Ryan Day not landed the quarterback as a transfer from Georgia, K.J. Hill says he would have left Ohio State for the NFL. But not enough pull for Day to name him the starter immediately after he arrived on campus or after he completed 15 spring practices.
The so-called competition between Fields and Gunnar Hoak has continued into preseason camp, even though just about everybody outside of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center believes Fields will take the field with the first-team offense in the season opener against Florida Atlantic on Aug. 31.
“I don't try to think about it as a battle,” Fields said on Sunday. “I'm not thinking, 'I have to do better than this guy and this guy.' I'm just focusing on us as a whole, us as an offense and just trying to get better each and every day.”
Fields has said in the past – and he reiterated on Sunday – that Day told him he wasn’t going to be “given” the starting spot. But it’s also clear he didn’t transfer schools to sit on the bench.
So as he has worked the past seven months to learn the offense and how to succeed under the tutelage of Day and Mike Yurcich, he has tried to assert himself as a leader after first earning the trust of his new teammates.
“Everyone on the team knows the quarterback has to be a leader,” Fields said. “So kind of just taking that step. And, you know, right when you come into a new place, you can't kind of just come in and just act like you're a leader. You kind of have to get used to the guys and just kind of build relationships with them so they trust you, and then you can kind of step out and become a leader. That's what I did, and I feel like I'm just becoming more of a leader each and every day.”
Yurcich said it was “great” that Fields has become more vocal and more natural in his position as a leader, which showed itself on Sunday in Ohio State’s third practice of preseason camp.
“You've just got to embrace it. All this hype and all that, you've just got to back it up. Just don't let everything get to your head.”– Justin Fields
When the offense wasn’t playing as well as he thought it should, Fields was the one who stepped up and pulled everybody together to let them know that their performance didn’t match the team’s expectations.
“I think yesterday we had a really good practice,” Fields said. “We weren't as good as yesterday, so I got all the guys together, and I was like, 'Yo, we need to pick it up, blah, blah, blah,' and just all that stuff. I'm just trying to just become that leader of the offense and get all the guys together.”
All of those moments, all of his passes throughout the summer, all of his dropbacks in the pocket in preseason camp are part of Fields’ process to be ready for the season opener, which is now just 27 days away.
Those both inside and outside of the program have abundant optimism in Fields’ long-term potential, and for good reason. Just one year ago, Fields entered college as the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 class. He showcased his throwing abilities by winning the Elite 11 MVP award that year, and he beat his goal of running a sub-4.45 40-yard dash by clocking times of 4.38 seconds (hand-timed) and 4.43 seconds (laser-timed) this spring, he said.
Day, though, has treated Fields with relative cautiousness when discussing how he’ll perform early in the season.
“There's going to be growth along the way, especially in those first six games,” Day said at Big Ten media days. “There's going to be growth, there's going to be mistakes and we're going to have to work through those things. Understanding that and understanding the expectations have to be managed a little bit in that room and making sure we're transparent with the rest of the team that that position is going to need help.”
In the past, Day has referenced his belief that Dwayne Haskins wasn’t ready to start until his third season at Ohio State.
Fields, who enrolled in the university in January, doesn’t have the luxury of that much time. So, he had to effectively create his own practices in order to make the most of the offseason. On all but about five days this summer, he said, the quarterbacks and wide receivers got together – often after lifting – to throw and catch passes.
Those sessions allowed him to learn more about the intricacies of each receiver and how certain players run routes, allowing him to get a feel for the players he’ll need to be in sync with this fall.
“I think I'm way better, just in terms of fundamentals, throwing-wise and just kind of staying in the pocket, pocket presence and all of that,” Fields said. “I think I've improved a lot from the spring.”
Fields also made “significant” progress toward learning the entire offensive system, per Yurcich.
The quarterback, pleased with his progress, has plenty of optimism in the rest of the players on his side of the ball, even in comparison to last season’s record-breaking offense that had Haskins at the helm.
“I think the offense as a whole right now is doing pretty good,” Fields said. “I was just talking to Branden Bowen in the locker room. He said compared to recent years, the offense has been doing better earlier in fall camp. So I think we're making good progress, and I definitely have more chemistry with all the receivers now after all the workouts in the summer. I think we're doing good right now.”
In order for Ohio State to compete for championships, which is always the goal in Columbus, it needs everything to click for Fields.
Day is prepared for that to take some time – possibly six weeks. But the hype around Fields suggests others imagine a more immediate impact for the cannon-armed quarterback with sub-4.50 speed.
“You've just got to embrace it,” Fields said. “All this hype and all that, you've just got to back it up. Just don't let everything get to your head. I try to stay even-keeled and stuff like that and don't even listen to the outside people and just keep my head down and work.”