Two years ago, head coach Ryan Day couldn’t have asked for a better regular season. His Ohio State team blew out opponents with such regularity that nearly every weekend the backups got action.
Either Chris Chugunov or Gunnar Hoak – the pair of backup quarterbacks – got onto the field for at least five snaps in 10 of the 14 games in 2019, combining for 189 snaps. They completed 32-of-49 passes for 390 yards with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions, taking advantage of their late-game opportunities to get comfortable as former graduate transfers within the new offense.
“There were a lot of snaps out there to be had (two years ago),” Day said on Friday morning. “Right now, we didn't have those snaps. I wish we were further along.”
The Chugunov-Hoak snaps only mattered in case something happened to Justin Fields that required them to fill in in 2019. Because they were brought in with the sole purpose of serving as backups, there wasn’t much of a long-term benefit to them playing. The Buckeyes would have instead seen and felt that this season.
Except they didn’t.
Because of the six-game regular season and lack of blowout wins, C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller combined for 18 snaps and didn’t throw a single pass. In other words, they did nothing but run the ball three times – each picking up touchdowns on the ground – and hand it off the remainder of their snaps. Kyle McCord, an incoming freshman and the third underclassman about to begin a competition to replace Fields as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, clearly doesn’t have any experience throwing the ball at the college level either.
“I wish they had gotten more game reps,” Day said. “You don't really know what you have in a quarterback until they're playing in the game. These guys had very, very limited reps. You would have more if you had a normal spring, preseason and then a season.”
So, it’s up to the Buckeyes to make up for lost time however they possibly can.
Preparation for the 2021 season truly gets underway on Feb. 1 when winter workouts with Mickey Marotti commence, and from there, Day and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis will ramp up their work with Stroud, Miller and McCord. Stroud and Miller enrolled early, so at the very least, they have spent a full year learning the offense and watching Fields work. Now, along with McCord who’s facing the stiff challenge of contending to start while also getting adjusted to college, they’ll get a chance to be The Guy.
Although suboptimal for none of them to have ever thrown a pass as a Buckeye before, Day can’t change the past. He and Dennis just have to figure out how best to prepare their young quarterbacks, and that might lead to a different-looking spring camp than usual when the team gets rolling in the not-too-distant future.
“We're going to have to find ways this spring between C.J., Jack and Kyle to give them as many game-like situations to figure out exactly what we've got,” Day said. “Because we can't go into that first game without knowing, or at least having an idea. I guess we'll never know until we're in a game. But we've got to try to simulate the games the best we can in practice, which may be a unique way of doing the spring. We're going to look at all of those things to try to figure that out because we need to be further along because that's going to be a huge part of what happens in the fall.”
Day claims the Buckeyes enter the offseason without a leader between Stroud, Miller and McCord, though it certainly appeared from the outside that Stroud became the backup to Fields at some point during the course of the 2020 season.
Thus, at least to start the offseason, they’ll split reps fairly evenly between them. Usually, he said, these types of situations have a tendency to take care of themselves when “somebody steps up” at a certain point. But if that doesn't happen, he said, Ohio State is content to “let them compete and then see how they grow.” He didn’t say whether or not he has an optimal timeline to figure out a starting quarterback.
“Those guys are going to roll, and they're going to get as many reps as they can,” Day said. “And if one guy starts to separate early on, then he goes and runs with it.”
McCord, the only five-star recruit among the trio, is said to get a chance to “compete for the job.” But even with Stroud and Miller not playing much as true freshman, he still faces an uphill battle to actually win the job. He’ll need to get on campus and shine off the rip to have a real shot.
He’s a year behind Stroud and Miller, both of whom should have the upper hand – at least as they enter the offseason and the competition truly gets going.
“Being the starting quarterback at Ohio State is unlike any other position there is,” Day said. “I think they get that, I think they understand it. I think they were able to see this year what Justin did and the stage. The stakes are very, very high here, and I think they learned that. But in terms of the football part, still figuring it out, still learning. I think they both need to get stronger here in the spring physically, and then they're going to be getting the majority of the reps here as we roll, and they're going to compete.”