Identifying the most interesting Ohio State football player this preseason is easy.
No one will draw more attention than Justin Fields, and not just because he is a quarterback.
With the way Urban Meyer recruited over the years, the Buckeyes figure to be good this season.
But how good? That will probably depend on Fields, a sophomore who transferred from Georgia in January.
Perhaps no player in the country has more power to affect the trajectory of a College Football Playoff candidacy, and that presents a unique challenge to Ryan Day, the first-year head coach of the Buckeyes.
Day is well aware.
“I think that's really important for the quarterback to understand week in and week out what his role is, week in and week out how the game is going to be different, week in and week out how the media is handling everything,” Day said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.
The last part Day saw first-hand as quarterbacks coach in 2017 as J.T. Barrett experienced the highs of a thrilling comeback win over Penn State and the lows of a four-interception loss at Iowa while capping a record-breaking career.
A season ago, he helped Dwayne Haskins go from relative unknown to Heisman Trophy finalist in the span of a few months, a bumpy ride that started with him putting up amazing numbers in the first half of the season before a lull in late October and early November.
Haskins finished with a flourish, though, throwing for 946 yards and 14 touchdown passes in the last three games as Ohio State beat three ranked opponents (Michigan, Northwestern and Washington).
Day seems intent on setting up a strong finish for his quarterback this season, too.
“Our schedule is funny this year,” the coach said. “We have six games, a bye week, two games, a bye week, and then we play four games. And so in those first six games, the quarterback is going to be green. He's not going to have a lot of experience. So the guys around him, our defense, the running game, the receivers on the end, they've got to pick up the slack there, and so as we go and grow throughout the season, we kind of get into that middle season hitting our stride on offense.”
Fields was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, fueling high expectations for him.
On top of that, he will be compared against the ridiculously high standard Haskins set in breaking nearly every single-season school passing record in his first year as a starter, and Fields will more or less be operating without a net.
If he does not win the job in preseason, the Ohio State offense figures to fall to fellow transfers Gunnar Hoak or Chris Chugunov, both veteran three-star recruits who are viewed more as care-takers than playmakers at the highest level of college football.
“There's not in a guy in that room that was on the roster in December, other than Chris Chugunov, so it’s an interesting situation,” Day said. “Whoever is playing in that first game, it will be the first time. Justin and Gunnar are going to compete like heck to go win the job. At the end of the day, it's going to come down to who can play the game.”
If the competition in preseason is even close, Fields figures to get the nod as teams generally prefer to endure growing pains with five-star sophomores rather than three-star juniors or seniors.
From a physical standpoint, Day said Fields checks off a lot of boxes.
“Running, athleticism, size, power, throwing ability, arm strength, accuracy, intelligence — he has all those things” Day said. “Now it’s just a matter in August of going on the field and seeing what kind of product we have. But in order to learn you have to fail. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of failing a lot in practice and spending a few years as an understudy. Some of those failures are going to happen in a game, and there’s going to be a lot of deep breaths. But in the end the good news is we’ve got a chance for a high ceiling.”
Ohio State’s likely No. 1 receiver, senior K.J. Hill, is a believer in Fields.
“Very comfortable — not worried at all,” Hill said of the quarterback situation. “We was in the same position last year so it’s just a process, it’s not going to happen overnight. Going into training camp all he can do is go to work. It’s not going to be perfect. I know Coach Day is gonna want perfection, but all I can do is lead the team in the right direction.”
Hill has been impressed with Fields’ work ethic so far and noticed a motivated young player.
“He’s got a chip on his shoulder right now. He knows he’s got a lot to prove, and I feel like going into training camp, I guess the rest is on him,” Hill said.
“You gotta live up to all of that at the end of the day. You gotta worry about filling big shoes over here, and you gotta worry about the doubters that have you over there in Georgia. I feel like all of it and all you can do is go to work, don’t say nothing, don’t talk about nothing but winning and getting yourself ready to play.”
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