Playing the what-if game about Joe Burrow’s time isn’t particularly difficult. One moment stands above the rest.
Had he not suffered a broken bone in his hand just before the Buckeyes kicked off the 2017 season, everything could have been different. At the time, he was entrenched in competition with Dwayne Haskins to back up J.T. Barrett. For all intents and purposes, though, the battle between backup quarterbacks represented an early beginning to their duel over the following season’s starting job.
Burrow’s hand injury set him back and allowed Haskins to become the backup, eventually leading to him taking over for an injured Barrett in the second half of Ohio State’s game against Michigan. That pressure-packed performance ultimately showed Urban Meyer that Haskins was special.
“To do what he did in Ann Arbor when we were losing the game against one of the top defense in America," Meyer told NBC Sports last year, "that's when we all knew.”
Without Haskins becoming the Buckeyes’ backup quarterback, without those seven passes and three rushes against Michigan, things could’ve turned out quite different. Could Burrow have won the starting job in the spring of 2018? Who knows – it’s a plausible scenario. What we understand as a fact is Haskins helped himself tremendously in the long-term by putting himself in the position to play important snaps, then thriving during those moments.
With that in mind, it’s fair to place a similar importance on Ohio State’s backup quarterback and running back competitions this fall, because the team is expected to need new starters at both positions in 2021.
Fields, Ryan Day’s first second-year starting quarterback ever, will leave for the NFL after the 2020 season. At this point, it’s a forgone conclusion. Most view him as a first-round lock, with many seeing him as a potential top-five draft pick who’ll be in contention with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence for the No. 1 overall selection.
And, while Trey Sermon hasn’t outright secured the starting running back spot, it’d be a surprise if he’s not lining up beside Fields when the season finally begins. It’s tough to imagine him transferring from Oklahoma for his final year of eligibility, then ending up as anything other than the starter.
Behind Fields, freshmen CJ Stroud and Jack Miller will jockey for position with Gunnar Hoak to become the backup quarterback in 2020, perhaps giving them a leg up when next spring rolls around and the starting competition in a post-Fields era truly rolls around. At the same time, a cadre of running backs – Master Teague, Marcus Crowley, Steele Chambers and Miyan Williams – will attempt to wedge their way into consistent roles alongside Sermon.
Here’s a look at how 2020 could set each these likely backup quarterbacks and running backs up for the following season.
CJ Stroud (Freshman)
It’s hard to believe given how he ended his high school career, but at this time a year ago, evaluators viewed him as a three-star quarterback prospect. He hadn’t yet competed – and won the MVP – in July’s Elite 11 competition, and Ohio State hadn’t even offered the late-blossoming signal-caller who eventually became the 41st-overall prospect and the second-ranked pro-style quarterback in his class.
The moment he committed, Stroud linked himself to Miller, the Arizona quarterback who had been a Buckeyes pledge since the summer of 2018. With the nature of how quarterbacks move from team to team in search of the best starting job possible, it’s difficult to imagine them both sticking around Columbus – even though it feels unfair to say that out loud this early into their careers.
Regardless, Stroud should get an opportunity to impress late in games as a true freshman. How much could they ultimately matter come the 2021 season? Go ask Haskins.
Jack Miller (Freshman)
Throughout his recruitment, from Meyer's retirement to the addition of a second quarterback in his class, Miller showcased tremendous loyalty. Here's one way to view it:
- Days between Miller's Ohio State commitment and Stroud's Ohio State offer: 464 days
- Days between Stroud's Ohio State offer and today: 220 days
At the time he committed, Miller was a high-end four-star prospect. By the time he enrolled in January, he had dropped outside of the top-300 overall recruits in his class. The fall came largely due to injuries, though, and won't affect him now that he's in college whatsoever.
As of now, he and Stroud are about as even as can be. They only got to spend three practices together working under Day and Corey Dennis before they had to head home, which the coaches didn't particularly love. Whenever they get back onto campus, it'll be incumbent on Miller to take advantage of every opportunity he gets, for they'll factor into Day's thoughts on his future as a potential starting quarterback in Columbus in 2021.
Master Teague (Redshirt Sophomore)
If there’s one player on this list most likely to surprise and end up as a starter in 2020, it’s Teague. Most pegged him as such a few months ago before an Achilles injury cut his spring short, sent him to the sidelines to begin an extended rehabilitation process and necessitated Day and Tony Alford hitting the transfer market.
At this point, it's hard to know whether Teague will be ready for the season opener. Day called him a "genetic freak," and Kevin Wilson said he "would think" he'll be back by the time the first game kicks off.
If Teague can get back in time to play the vast majority of the 2020 season, he remains a candidate to earn the starting running back spot this fall, though the injury makes it unlikely. Either way, with however many touches he gets, his speed-power combination makes him a potentially strong complementary option to Sermon. Last year, J.K. Dobbins took the vast majority of meaningful carries, but Teague still managed to pick up 789 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 135 carries.
Should Teague finish first or second among running backs in touches along with Sermon this fall, he'd likely enter next spring as a projected starter in 2021.
Marcus Crowley (Sophomore)
Like Teague, Crowley's outlook would be more positive if he hadn't suffered a significant injury. Day said last month he's been recovering from an ACL injury, which appeared likely to have kept him off of the field for the entirety of spring camp. However, in early March, Day also mentioned he expects him to be ready for the start of the 2020 season.
Provided the timeline hasn't changed, Crowley has a legitimate chance to earn touches this fall. As a freshman, Florida's 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year had 25 rushes for 237 yards and a touchdown. He set a season-high with 82 yards on eight carries versus Maryland before his game ended with him getting driven off on a cart with a leg injury.
Because of that injury, there's a degree of uncertainty about Crowley's health and position on the depth chart as the season creeps closer, but his lack of a redshirt hints at Alford's belief in him. He'll first need to show he's healthy, but the potential carries are there for the taking.
Steele Chambers (Redshirt Freshman)
With Teague getting hurt the first practice of March, Crowley already on the mend, Williams not yet enrolled and Sermon not yet in the plans, Chambers expected to get a host of carries in the spring. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic sent everybody home prematurely.
Still, as the one returner without injury concerns, Chambers is an under-the-radar pick to ascend up the depth chart in the preseason. Once recruited by Clemson as a linebacker, he's a bit of a different type of athlete than those in the running back room with him. In his redshirt season, the Georgia native played 33 offensive snaps, rushing 19 times for 135 yards and a touchdown.
Chambers, provided he stays healthy, should get a chance to have a significant uptick in touches in 2020, potentially setting himself up well for the following year, too.
Miyan Williams (Freshman)
Talk about an underdog, both in the short-term and long-term.
In the class ahead of Williams, the Buckeyes brought in Crowley and Chambers. Coming to Columbus in a year are five-star TreVeyon Henderson and four-star Evan Pryor, a pair of top-100 overall prospects. Williams, who joins Ohio State after racking up 5,823 rushing yards and 68 touchdowns at Winton Woods in Cincinnati, was a three-star prospect ranked as the 625th-best recruit in the 2020 cycle.
Once he enrolls, he'll be the youngest, lowest-rated running back in the room, and he'll remain the only former three-star running back a year later. However, Williams doesn't intend to be discounted, as he showed with his physical transformation this spring.
“I just feel like if I just get my opportunity, I'm going to take it,” Williams told Eleven Warriors in December. “That's what happened here at Winton Woods. Because there was a senior in front of me. I got my opportunity and I took it.”
With a graduate transfer and three returners already in the running back room, it won't come easy for Williams – not that he cares.