Justin Fields legitimately might be the most talented player to ever suit up in an Ohio State uniform. At the very least, he’s in the process of locking up that title among quarterbacks to don the scarlet and gray.
The Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago returned to put a stamp on his career as a Buckeye before fulfilling the plan head coach Ryan Day set forth when he transferred from Georgia by becoming a top-of-the-first-round NFL draft pick. He has, depending on if his team makes the national championship game or not, two or three games remaining in his college football career. That’s it. Then it’s on to the pros for him and on to the next in line for the Buckeyes.
So, who’s next up once Fields takes his otherworldly skill set to the NFL? This fall was supposed to offer a hint at the answer to that exact question.
Day and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis hoped to get CJ Stroud and Jack Miller – a pair of four-star freshman signal-callers – plenty of opportunities late in games to see what they had in the duo. Yet that never came to fruition. Ohio State only played five regular season games, and within those the team didn’t win via blowout fashion nearly as often as anticipated. Thus, as the Buckeyes enter postseason play, neither Stroud nor Miller has thrown a single pass. The only insight into the behind-the-scenes battle came when a dinged-up Fields exited the Michigan State game and Stroud entered, meaning he was the emergency quarterback – at least for that weekend.
Their lack of playing time perhaps opens the door for somebody else who hasn’t stepped foot on campus yet but could make things interesting when he gets there in January. That guy? Kyle McCord, a five-star from Philadelphia.
“That is going to happen. He will compete for the job,” Day said. “We're going to have to figure out, if Justin decides to go to the NFL, who the next quarterback is at Ohio State. And that's a big, big deal. I know he's looking forward to getting in here and getting to work right away.”
Day making it sound like Fields has even a remote shot of sticking around borders on laughable. Nobody should view that as even a semi-realistic possibility. But him tossing McCord’s name right in there with Stroud’s and Miller’s shouldn’t be seen as him just doing it out of the goodness of his heart.
McCord, the first five-star quarterback out of high school to sign with Ohio State since Braxton Miller, will be in the mix from the get-go. Maybe a decade or two ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. First-year quarterbacks used to almost always sit on the bench to start their careers. In recent years, playing them out of the gate has become in vogue.
Gifted enough to have talent evaluators rate him as the 25th-best overall prospect and third-best pro-style quarterback in his class, McCord has a real shot to become the first true freshman quarterback to start for the Buckeyes since Miller. That’s especially true given Miller’s and Stroud’s lack of in-game experience, evening the playing field more than most anticipated.
Day and Dennis won’t have a known commodity to rely on regardless of which guy they end up going with.
“Any time you're playing with quarterbacks who haven't played, your comfort level's not real high. I can promise you that,” Day said. “So, yeah, it'll be anxious. But you recruit guys for a reason and you've got to develop them and you've got to get them out there and you've got to let them play. They haven't played in games. I mean, they've got a couple reps here and there, but they haven't actually played.
“They've practiced a lot, so I think they're getting a feel for the offense, which is great. But there's nothing like game reps. As you guys know, you don't really know until you get them in the game. So that's been hard for them. So maybe once we get going in the spring, we'll try to figure out how to address that issue.”
Like Stroud, Fields and Quinn Ewers, Day targeted McCord early in the process. He went after Miller soon after getting hired in January 2018, too, but by then Urban Meyer had already extended a scholarship offer to the Arizonian.
Reflecting back on securing McCord’s pledge, Day says the Buckeyes “right from the jump” recognized him as “very, very talented.”
“We had an opportunity to watch him play and thought he had a chance to be a really good player,” Day said.
So, Ohio State extended a scholarship offer to McCord after the end of his sophomore season with eyes on him as the future quarterback in Columbus. Within months, he had picked the Buckeyes instead of well over a dozen other schools, taking the spot in the class some once thought would end up being filled by Michigan-bound J.J. McCarthy.
Two years later, McCord signed a National Letter of Intent on Wednesday morning and plans to begin classes in just a few short weeks. The future that once seemed so far away is now hurtling toward McCord, whose entrance into college football will be a heavily covered quarterback competition with Stroud and Miller.
With Fields’ career as a Buckeye winding down, it’ll soon be time to shift all focus to the trio of underclassmen vying to replace him in 2021. And while he’ll have spent the least time in the program, it would be foolish to completely discount McCord.
“I know he's excited about getting here early on and competing the minute he walks in the door,” Day said.