Since Ryan Day didn’t recruit Justin Fields out of high school, he didn’t have too much clarity about some of the quarterback’s intangibles, including his toughness.
Sure, Day knew how much Fields impressed at the Elite 11 by winning MVP honors. He knew all about the speed that has him clocking 4.4-second 40-yard dashes. He knew about the arm that he has used to throw 18 touchdown passes with just one interception in the first six games.
As for Fields’ toughness? Day needed to see it, and he couldn’t quite get a gauge even by the end of preseason camp in August.
“I didn't know,” Day said last week. “Got around him a little bit, got to know him a little bit, but still you don't know until you're in it because we don't tackle the quarterback.”
Six games into Ohio State’s season, Fields has answered that question.
“I think the quarterback's tough,” Day said a week ago. “I watch the way he takes shots and he stands in there. And I think our team is getting a little bit of that identity.”
The hits he has taken, the hits he has delivered, how he has run the ball and how he has stood in the pocket have stood out to the head coach. They’ve led to results. Fields has now completed 89-of-141 passes for 1,298 yards with 18 passing touchdowns and has 57 carries for 283 yards and eight rushing touchdowns.
Specifically, Day said he has seen some “grittiness” from his quarterback – even though the Buckeyes have played only one game in which they didn’t blow out their opponent by so many points that Fields got replaced by his backup, Chris Chugunov.
“His leadership and his toughness has shown,” Day said last week. “And I think the guys in that locker room are appreciative of that. I think they see it. He's got a lot of areas to grow and a lot of things to work on, but if he continues to lead, if he continues to be tough, if he continues to be a leader in that locker room, then a lot of good things are going to happen.”
With those hits, as impressive as they were to Day, Fields needed a bit of a break. Some time off. And he got it the past week with the Buckeyes on their first off week of the season.
For the first time since the summer, Fields got a chance to return home to Georgia to visit his family and spend some time with his sisters. During his Saturday off, he even saw his former team, the Bulldogs, lose their first game of the season to South Carolina. More than anything, he believes he benefited by getting healthier.
“My body definitely feels better now,” Fields said on Tuesday evening. “Last week, I was kind of sore a little bit. But that week off definitely helped my soreness.”
That didn’t mean he spent much more time off of the field than usual, though. Or any more time off the field than usual.
Fields said quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich told him to take as many reps as he wanted in practices. He responded by taking his typical amount of practice reps.
In those settings, rather than trying to do anything complex, Fields said he and his coaches spent time working on footwork, getting through his reads quicker and quick releases. Nothing too crazy.
“I think we kind of got back to the fundamentals a lot, so we kind of just went back to week one and kind of just focused on the basics and kind of tightened those up because usually some teams can kind of shy away from those,” Fields said. “We just used that week to kind of get back to the fundamentals and basics.”
So far, Fields’ fundamentals have gotten the job done, and so has the playbook, which Day says won’t have a sudden expansion in the second half of the year.
“He was working with just about all of it, and he's learning it more and more,” Day said. “And it's the same thing with the bye week. We're trying to enhance the best we can, and work on our fundamentals. He has certain things he needs to work on, and he's going to do that. But we've kind of thrown the whole thing at him, and he's been able to handle it.”
There hasn't been much yet that Fields hasn’t been able to handle, and he’ll have a chance to impress again on the road versus Northwestern on Friday night.