Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields entered last week’s contest against Florida Atlantic with palpable hype surrounding his first start in a Buckeye uniform.
But, until he was racing 51 yards to the endzone on the fourth play of the opening drive during last week’s 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic — his first-ever start in college football — hype was about the only word to describe the attention Fields had been receiving over the previous seven months since announcing his decision to transfer to Ohio State to play in head coach Ryan Day’s offense.
After all, he attempted just 39 passes during his lone season at Georgia, most of which were in garbage time. He was used sparingly in the Bulldogs’ biggest games, such as their loss to Alabama in the SEC championship. And he was coming to Ohio State to replace its greatest passer in school history in Dwayne Haskins, who rewrote the school and conference record books in a single season en route to becoming a first-round NFL draft pick.
Combined with the program’s concrete expectations of being in the playoff hunt every year, Fields inherited a daunting proposition for any first-year starter, regardless of the hype … not that any of those facts were going to get in the way of the buzz.
Fields went on to add three first-quarter touchdown passes against FAU that sent the Ohio Stadium crowd into a frenzy, and he commanded the attention of the college football talking heads and fans everywhere as his strong performance early suggested that perhaps the hype may very well have been warranted.
However, the offense struggled to sustain the impossible pace it set in the first quarter. Protection issues arose and receivers were no longer running free as Florida Atlantic elected to drop eight men into coverage, forcing Fields to see the field and throw into tight windows.
The end result was an encouraging, albeit uneven, performance that still leaves an air of mystery to what Buckeye fans can expect from the sophomore quarterback this season.
Questions of Fields’ physical talents were answered quickly. He’s fast. Very fast. And his arm strength will never be in question.
But last Saturday offered only a little insight into what the true ceiling is for Fields in year one, forgetting the hype associated with his arrival or the unrealistic expectations he inherited thanks to Haskins. The opponent was outmatched, and the offensive play calling was surely vanilla following the white-hot start and early scoring barrage.
It’s fair to wonder how much was really learned about Fields other than that he has all the physical tools to be elite.
During his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Day said he felt Fields played well in terms of managing the game and not trying to force the football, both signs of maturity for a young quarterback.
Asked where he saw the need for improvement following Saturday’s performance, Day identified reads and protections as areas that need to be cleaned up, adding he will get better as he gains more experience.
Fields can expect to see a considerable jump in opposition this week when the Buckeyes square off with the Cincinnati Bearcats, who finished 11th in the country in total defense last season. While they lost major contributors to graduation and injury this offseason, plenty of talent remains, and any team led by head coach Luke Fickell can be expected to be sound defensively.
The Bearcats’ defense played well against a dual-threat quarterback last week in UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, although comparisons between him and Fields should begin and end with them playing the same position. Regardless, the Bearcat defense had a lot to say about Thompson-Robinson’s poor final stat line, which included only eight completions on 26 attempts and two interceptions.
Perhaps Buckeye fans will gain even more insight into how far along Fields is at this stage in his career, particularly from a mental standpoint, on Saturday. Fickell’s defensive game plan is sure to throw more at Fields than he saw last week from FAU, and how he responds and adjusts to it could speak volumes for what can reasonably be asked of Fields in the early going as he continues to grow with each and every start.
As a leader, Fields appears to have already shown growth from his first start. Asked what his biggest takeaway was following the game last Saturday, Fields said it was that it is his responsibility to ensure the entire offense remains focused and doesn’t let up after a fast start.
“I think the offense, as a whole, has to keep up the tempo, and the whole game we have to act like the score is 0-0,” Fields said during his media availability on Tuesday. “We got up on (FAU) early and kind of took a tone down a little bit … we have to just keep going at them.”
He later said he didn’t spend much time following Saturday’s performance thinking about his play. Rather, his mind had already turned to week two and the matchup with Cincinnati, another sign of maturity for a quarterback preparing for the second start of his career.
Fields will be tested on Saturday, and whether he responds with another first-quarter blitzkrieg, a more methodical performance, or something worse, Buckeye fans should have a much better feel for where the hype surrounding Fields currently stands in regards to the reality of his progression.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.