A 21-day mandatory ban from playing games this season in the case of a positive COVID-19 test worries Justin Fields enough to make him not even want to consider what he’d do if that situation were to arise for him. He couldn’t fathom it.
“That’s three games right there,” Fields said two weeks ago. “You might as well sit the rest of the season out.”
Yet, whether Fields wants to believe it or not, it’s a reality he and Ohio State have to deal with. For that reason, helped by daily rapid tests that allow teams to play on what university president Kristina Johnson calls “clean playing field,” the Buckeyes’ players and coaches have made their own personal sacrifices – from not partying to not living at home for fear of contracting coronavirus from a school-aged child – in order to minimize the possibility of testing positive for COVID-19. They all have the same goal of ending this unusual season in Miami competing for a national championship.
Fields intends to lead the Buckeyes to the promised land.
But head coach Ryan Day’s team needs to, at the very least, prepare safety nets for worst-case scenarios. That’s the deal every year – nobody following Ohio State in the 2010s needs a reminder of the importance of quarterback depth – but it’s especially true ahead of a season where someone sitting out 21 days is a distinct possibility.
At quarterback, incoming freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller, along with redshirt senior Gunnar Hoak, represent the guys Day would turn to if something were to go wrong with Fields – whether a broken chinstrap or something more serious.
“They're going to have to be ready to go because this year, you have to have depth at every position,” Day said on Friday. “That's a very, very important area that we have to make sure that those guys are ready. They're one snap away. They're one day away from being in that first game. So they've got to do a good job.”
Unfortunately for both Ohio State’s coaches and the backup quarterbacks, by no fault of their own, they didn’t have an uninterrupted offseason to gear up as planned. Both Stroud and Miller – a pair of four-star recruits – enrolled early in January with the idea that they’d spend the next eight months transitioning to their college careers, knowing the Buckeyes might call on them this fall given their uncertainty as to who’s the backup behind Fields. Hoak, the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster, threw just six passes in four games last year.
“They're fast learners and they're both, of course, talented. If they weren't talented, they wouldn't be here at Ohio State. So they both can sling the ball and they're both very athletic. So I think they're doing pretty good.”– Justin Fields on C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller
The coronavirus pandemic didn’t allow the freshmen the anticipated opportunity to thoroughly engross themselves in the quarterback position at Ohio State, so the coaches are keen on making up for it now that preseason camp has begun.
Day, who’s trying to get them set to play as soon as possible, intends to give them the backup practice reps for the foreseeable future. Hoak, a former Kentucky transfer, spent the entirety of the past year in the program, so he has a handle on the offense. The plan, as Day explains it, is to give Stroud and Miller the majority of second-team snaps for the next few weeks while working Hoak in where openings appear.
“Gunnar had, kind of, last year, so we're trying to get the other guys up and running because they didn't have the spring or preseason to kind of see where we're at because we have such a short preseason leading into this,” Day said. “And then as time goes on, Gunnar will start getting more and more reps. But it's been good. I think all three of those guys – C.J., Jack and Gunnar – have done a really good job of picking up the offense since they've been here.”
Such time is valuable to all young quarterbacks, but especially Stroud and Miller. Preparing them requires a two-pronged mindset since Ohio State both needs them to be ready to serve in backup duty this fall and knows they’re both in line to compete to start next fall when Fields moves on to the NFL. They represent the future and, for this year, the emergency plan.
The job of readying Stroud and Miller for the season largely falls upon Corey Dennis, Ohio State’s first-year quarterbacks coach. He worked within the program for five years as a senior quality control coach and graduate assistant before Mike Yurcich left for Texas and Day made him the new position coach.
The Buckeyes’ priority at quarterback is the get Fields ready for the season, Day said. So, the head coach has taken a hands-on approach with the star quarterback. Fields said that before preseason camp began, once the quarterbacks finished working together, he and Day would “dive deeper” into the playbook by themselves while Dennis took the two freshmen to himself to further educate the first-year signal-callers on the offense they have to quickly learn.
Dennis plays an integral part in Fields’ development, but because Day’s heavily involved there too, his time working with Stroud and Miller has been arguably the most important aspect of his job in the offseason.
“Corey Dennis has done a good job up to this point,” Day said.
The most noticeable aspect of Stroud and Miller so far, in Fields’ opinion, has been “their urge to get better and their urge to learn.”
“They're doing great,” Fields said on Friday. “They're both getting reps with the twos, so they're competing right now. They're both doing awesome. They're fast learners and they're both, of course, talented. If they weren't talented, they wouldn't be here at Ohio State. So they both can sling the ball and they're both very athletic. So I think they're doing pretty good.”
Stroud and Miller learning quickly would have mattered regardless of whether or not a pandemic interrupted their spring and summer.
Now, since they remain in contention to back Fields up before competing to start at quarterback next year, the importance of them getting up to speed as soon as possible only grows.