Saturdays, for at least the past month, have been “torture” to Ryan Day. Ohio State’s head coach didn’t sugarcoat anything when describing what he has felt while watching weeks of college football without the ability to get his team back onto the field quite yet.
Justin Fields had similar thoughts early on. But ever since the Big Ten reversed course and decided to put on a fall football season, he has replaced the pain coursing through him with anticipation. As every day passes, he says, he becomes progressively more anxious.
“I know I've said it 10 times, but y'all don't know how excited I am to play,” Fields said on Tuesday. “I can't wait to take the field again with my brothers. I'm really excited.”
Fields, for the past couple of weeks, has hammed home that point. The third-year quarterback is more than ready to get back onto the field after a standout sophomore season that left him just short of his goals.
Despite completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,273 yards, 41 touchdowns and three interceptions, along with 10 rushing touchdowns, he couldn’t get over the hump either individually or as a team in 2019, finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting and getting bounced from the College Football Playoff in the semifinals. Fields spent the offseason figuring out how he can position himself and his team to achieve their ultimate goals.
“I want to be the best quarterback in college football,” Fields said. “I want to be the best quarterback I can be. So I think that just is what goes into it. I don't think it's complicated. I think it's simple – want and need. So, it's kind of, what do you want to accomplish? You want to be the best quarterback, you want to win the national championship. You want to do all this with your teammates. Then you have to sit down and you have to say it to yourself: How do I get there? How do I get better? You have to kind of write out a plan.”
Perhaps most importantly, as the season nears, his body feels good to go once again.
In the days before the Fiesta Bowl, Fields let on that his knee was only 80-85 percent healthy. In January, Ryan Day said he didn’t anticipate the injury would have any lingering effects going into the 2020 season, and time has proven him correct.
“I feel great,” Fields said. “Of course, those last few games, my knee was banged up. But I feel like I've prepared in the offseason, I've done my offseason training to where I've put myself in a great position to see it on the field. So I feel great in terms of my knee and in terms of running. And I feel like the diet that I changed in the offseason, I feel like that was a big help too, so I feel great. Just ready to go.”
Mentally, Fields has done whatever possible to put himself into an optimal spot, too.
He worked five days a week with Day, meeting to go over passing concepts then heading outside to get critiques on his throwing motion and fine-tune the basics. While last year he spent much of his time after enrolling in January learning the offense, including the pertinent reads and protections, he tried to learn the logic behind Day’s teaching in this offseason. He hopes to be more of an on-field coach at quarterback in his second season as a starter.
The ever-increasing attention to details has challenged first-year quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis, who said he has to prepare for meetings like he’s coaching Tom Brady.
“The guy is polished,” Dennis said. “The thing about Justin is he wants to be great. He wants to be the best. He's not going to leave any stone unturned. He wants to know why we're doing this, what's the read, and he's truly going to be prepared, versus just knowing our offense. But he wants to know what everybody else is doing, what our offensive line is doing on run plays, what the opposing defenses are going to do. He's all-in. He's ready to go. His preparation level, it's through the roof right now.”
This almost never came to fruition.
Had the season remained canceled or postponed to the spring, Columbus almost certainly would have seen the last of Fields in an Ohio State uniform. Instead, he’s a week and a half away from beginning his second season as a Buckeye, chasing a national title and the designation of the best quarterback in football.
“I just feel like I'm a better football player overall, to be honest,” Fields said. “I feel like there were a lot of things I had to get better at in my game in this past offseason. I think I had pretty much everywhere to improve, all aspects of the game. So that's what I did. I tried to learn as much as possible from coach Day and I tried to critique my game and work on my craft. So that's what I did.”