Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, Justin Fields picked up the phone and made a call he both didn’t want to make and had to make.
On the other end of the line was Penn State head coach James Franklin. For about six months, Fields had been committed to play quarterback for the Nittany Lions. But while making noise on the recruiting trail in the early months of 2017, he realized he wanted to entertain offers from schools closer to home. So on June 6, 2017, the Georgia native decommitted from the team Ohio State will face at noon on Saturday.
“I just remember before I called coach Franklin, I was nervous,” Fields said on Tuesday. “I was like, 'Ugh, I don't want to do this right now.' I talked to my dad before, and we just felt like it was the best decision for me at the time because I was kind of blowing up in my recruitment and I really didn't want to go that far in terms of leaving home. And I wasn't fully committed to the team and fully committed to the other commits, so I kind of felt bad talking about other schools and stuff like that. I just talked to coach Franklin. Coach Franklin, he didn't see it coming. I just had that phone call with him. It definitely was one of the hardest phone calls I've ever had to make.”
Four months later, he pledged to remain in his home state to play for the Bulldogs. At the time, it felt like the right move for him in the same way that decommitting made sense earlier that year.
When he initially committed to Penn State, Fields says he chiefly did so because of his feelings toward then-offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who’s now Mississippi State’s head coach.
“I had such a great relationship with coach Moorhead, I think just the relationship you have with the person, that makes it harder,” Fields said on Tuesday. “It might be not as hard for a person who doesn't have that good of a relationship with their coach. It's really like breaking up with your girlfriend. Say if you have a good relationship with her or whatever, you don't want to break up with her, but you might have to because just of circumstances outside.”
Ohio State certainly won’t complain about reaping the benefits of that breakup.
“I'll Make Sure He Doesn't Remember It”
A year ago, Shaun Wade got beat in a way he had never been before and hasn’t since. Penn State’s KJ Hamler lined up in the slot, got a bit of separation on an inside slant and darted down the field, going 93 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter.
To put Hamler’s touchdown reception into perspective, the Buckeyes haven’t given up any run or pass for even 50 yards in the first 10 games of this season. But that big-play prevention hasn’t cleared Wade’s memory quite yet.
“It's still in my head,” Wade said on Saturday. “It's definitely still in my head. But I try not to think about it.”
If Jeff Hafley has his way, Wade won’t remember it by the time Saturday’s game kicks off.
“I'll make sure he doesn't remember it,” Hafley said on Tuesday. “He's got to forget about that. I mean, it's over. It happened so long ago. Playing corner, it's about the next play. Whether you were good or bad on the last one, he can't think like that, and I'll make sure he doesn't think like that. I think Shaun's a new player. I think he's a better player. And I think he'll be ready this time.”
Hamler leads the Nittany Lions with 46 receptions for 791 yards and eight touchdowns. He left last week’s game against Indiana early due to an injury, but Ryan Day said he’ll be “shocked” if Hamler does not play.
Back to basics
At this point in the season, there’s not much reason to compare this year’s team to last year’s team. Yet given the difference in defensive production, that remains difficult.
The stats tell the story of a defensive rehaul:
- Points allowed per game: 25.5 (2018), 9.8 (2019)
- Yards per play allowed: 5.77 (2018), 3.52 (2019)
- Yards per carry allowed: 4.52 (2018), 2.43 (2019)
- Yards per pass allowed: 7.0 (2018), 4.9 (2019)
- Opponent first downs per game: 20.2 (2018), 13.7 (2019)
- Opponent third-down conversion percentage: 32.68 (2018), 26.85 (2019)
To Hafley, the stark improvement can be attributed as much to teaching the basics of technique as anything else.
He said he believes the fundamentals are “lost today in football.” So the coaching staff, which includes four first-year defensive assistants, focused on that rather than implementing exotic schemes and coverages, per Hafley.
“If you have to spend all your time doing all of that, then how do you teach getting off the blocks? How do you teach leverage? How do you teach the proper steps? How do you teach tackling? How do you teach all the little things that are so much more important than scheme? So that's what we've done,” Hafley said. “And people might look at us on tape and say, ‘Eh, they don't do too much.’ We do, but I believe that we play with great fundamentals, and I would say right now we're one of the best tackling teams in football. And that was more important to us than any, ‘Wow, that's a great blitz,’ or, ‘Wow, that coverage is so exotic.’
“To us, that was not the important thing. So I think we put our priorities in the right place with really good talent that was recruited here, and the players have bought in and worked. And I think that is why we are where we are right now.”
There’s a chance that a pair of seniors won’t be playing their final game at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
Justin Hilliard, a fifth-year senior linebacker, has already submitted a waiver to the NCAA and has recently spoken about possibly returning for a sixth year due to injuries that have limited his on-field availability throughout his career. On Thursday, Ryan Day did not specify whether Hilliard has had his sixth-year waiver approved yet, but said Hilliard is interested in staying for another season.
“You'll have to talk to Justin about that,” Day said. “But he certainly has interest in coming back.”
Hilliard will be the only senior not to go through pregame senior day festivities on Saturday.
Team captain C.J. Saunders expected his fifth year at Ohio State to go much differently. A lower-body injury has kept the former walk-on wide receiver on the sideline for the entire season. Saunders will go through senior day, but Day said a sixth year is “something he's interested in.”
“But there's still a lot to be done before that happens,” Day said.
A Possible Position Change
Before entering the Ohio State football program in the summer, Cade Stover imagined he’d fit into the defense as a strongside linebacker. During the summer, preseason and beginning of his freshman season, he slotted into the second level of the defense.
But against Rutgers on Saturday, he played defensive end, picking up one tackle.
“We wanted to experiment with him,” Hafley said. “We've been doing it for a little bit in practice. He's been doing that a little bit on the scout team. So we kind of just were trying to figure out exactly what he can do, where he's best suited. I think we'll continue to work through that and see what the best spot is for him. But he's very talented. He's got a lot of versatility. He's strong. He can run. So we're trying to find the best place for him right now.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Stover has the natural frame of a defensive end. The next step, provided he doesn’t shift back to linebacker, would be to add weight. Given Ohio State’s depth at linebacker, especially with the possibility of Hilliard returning for a sixth year, Stover sticking with his move to the defensive line would seem to make logical sense.