Justin Fields did what he needed to do to separate himself from his competition and earn the opportunity to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback this season.
Now, the real work begins.
Monday’s announcement by Ryan Day that Fields will be the first quarterback on the field for the Buckeyes’ Aug. 31 season opener against FAU didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. While Gunnar Hoak and Chris Chugunov also competed for the job in preseason camp, Fields took the majority of first-team reps all offseason – including both spring and fall practices. The starting job was always his to lose.
Day didn’t want to actually name a starting quarterback until Fields made it clear that he was ready to lead Ohio State’s offense, and he didn’t think that Fields was quite ready when camp began. Over the past two weeks, Fields made enough strides to separate himself from the competition and make it clear that he was the best quarterback on the roster.
Still, Day sees plenty of room for Fields to continue to improve even as the season fast approaches.
“I still don't think he's where he needs to be,” Day said Monday, “but after this last week, I do feel like he’s played at a starter level, and I think he’s earned the job. And we'll see where it goes from there.”
The message is clear: Fields can’t simply be satisfied with winning the starting job.
As he prepares for his first game as Ohio State’s starting quarterback – which will be both his first game as a Buckeye and his first start for any college team after coming off the bench last year at Georgia – Fields said his mentality is the same now as it’s been all offseason.
“You really can’t look at yourself as a starter. You kind of have to look at it as yourself that you’re not the starter, so you keep working,” Fields said Monday. “I kinda tell myself that I’m not there yet, I’m not where I need to be so I can just continue to keep working and just get better every day.”
Fields, who has still only been at Ohio State for less than eight months, said he still feels like he needs to get better in all aspects of his game.
“I feel like I have to improve on everything, really,” Fields said. “I’m not where I need to be, and I definitely think I have a long way to go.”
At the same time, Fields feels like he has already improved significantly in the seven months that he has been a Buckeye so far, and Day agrees. As Fields has had time to get a better grasp of the playbook and get to know his teammates better, he’s been able to make faster reads and move the offense more effectively and start to emerge as a team leader.
“You have to prove to your teammates and coaches that you're worthy of being a starter,” Day said. “A lot comes with that: leadership, ability to control the offense, making checks up front, protection checks, making good reads in the run game, locating the football, taking care of the football. It's not just going out there and playing, it's moving the football down the field. You can see when the guys are around in the huddle, there's a confidence about him, and he’s moving the ball down the field, and his completion percentage is at a certain point. That's how you earn a starting job.”
Fields said he feels like he has gained the trust of his teammates, which he knew would be an important part of the process as he prepared to potentially become the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback this offseason.
“I definitely feel like the offense looks to me as a leader now and I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable talking to the whole team and just trying to lead all those guys,” Fields said. “I think for us to be successful, all the guys on offense, all the guys on defense are going to have to trust me, so that kind of was my goal and one of my goals of the offseason is just to get all those guys to trust me.”
Every one of Fields' Ohio State teammates that was asked on Monday, including wide receiver K.J. Hill, expressed confidence that Fields is ready to go because of the improvement they have seen in him over the course of the spring and summer.
“I feel like since day one to now, practice 15, it’s been a big difference in him because I feel like he’s comfortable,” Hill said. “I feel like he felt like he was quarterback one, and he acted like it. We fed off his energy, and I feel like we’re ready to rock and roll, knowing that he’s our starter.”
As a five-star recruit with huge upside as both a passer and runner, Fields faces immediate expectations to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and anything less could be seen as a letdown. Day described those expectations as “almost ridiculous,” knowing that there will likely be growing pains for Fields in what is not only his first season as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, but his first season playing for Ohio State at all – unlike last year’s starting quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, who had two years to develop at Ohio State before starting his first game.
“It's not going to be perfect,” Day said. “There are going to be mistakes along the way. The only way you grow is by failing. Dwayne had the opportunity to come in against Illinois, to come in against UNLV, throws a pick-six, makes a bunch of mistakes, but it was in mop-up time and nobody was noticing. Justin doesn't have that luxury.”
Fields understands, though, that those expectations – and the criticism that could subsequently come his way if he doesn’t meet those expectations – come with the territory of being Ohio State’s starting quarterback. His plan is to pay as little attention as possible to what people outside the program are saying about him and focus on what he needs to do to help the team win.
“Coach Day also talked about in one of the team meetings how the team shouldn’t look at the outside voices because we’re the guys on the field actually playing, so we’re the only ones that completely know what’s going on,” Fields said. “So I’m just going to go about it as just doing my best in the field and just making the smartest decisions and just trying to help the team win.”
“I kinda tell myself that I’m not there yet, I’m not where I need to be so I can just continue to keep working and just get better every day.”– Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields on his mental approach
Even though Fields is now officially the starting quarterback, at least to open the season, neither Day nor Fields wants to make any bold proclamations about what he could accomplish this season, preferring to see how the season plays out one game and one play at a time.
That said, both of them believe Fields is capable of accomplishing great things this year. Day said he is “very, very excited” about Fields’ potential. Fields believes he has the tools to be great, but ultimately, the work he puts in will determine how successful he is.
“I definitely have the potential to be a great player, and God has blessed me with a lot of ability,” Fields said. “I think this just goes for anybody, I think people can do whatever they want to if they just discipline themselves and do what you need to do to really do it, because I mean, some people have the potential to be great and they just don’t take advantage of it. So I think you just do what you need to do and be disciplined and do the things that you don’t like to do, then you’ll eventually get to where you want to go.”