For each of Ryan Day’s two seasons as head coach at Ohio State, he has enjoyed the luxury of having a clear starter at the game’s most important position.
Heading into his third spring practice as the man in charge, however, Day will now have to rely on his own recruiting eye to solve the biggest looming question for the Buckeyes moving forward.
Justin Fields’ transfer from Georgia ahead of the 2019 season came at a critical moment for the immediate future of the program as the quarterback depth chart looked paltry by Ohio State’s standards prior to his arrival. Dwayne Haskins’ decision to leave as a junior after just one year as a starter was a hit, albeit an unsurprising one, and Joe Burrow’s transfer the prior season only exacerbated the issue.
However, Fields’ arrival in Columbus immediately elevated the status of the position from one of great concern to a team strength as the soon-to-be first-round pick’s talent was on display from his very first performance as a Buckeye.
But with Fields’ own decision to declare early for the NFL Draft earlier this month, Day is left to identify the next trigger man and leader of his offense. And while there will be no shortage of talent to develop in redshirt freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller, as well as incoming freshman and five-star recruit Kyle McCord, experience and game film will be nearly non-existent for Day to lean on.
“I wish we were further along,” Day said last week when asked about his quarterbacks. “I wish they had gotten more game reps because you don’t know what you really have in a quarterback until they’re playing in the game.”
Day lamented the lack of opportunities to get his young quarterbacks into games this past season, pointing to the 2019 season when Fields was often out of games early in the second half. Due to scarce reps in 2020, a pecking order never really took shape regarding who was truly backing up Fields a year ago.
Having never identified a clear backup prior to the start of last season, it appeared an answer to the question was indirectly given in the Buckeyes’ season opener when Miller was the first off the bench in relief of Fields during their 52-17 win over Nebraska. Miller never attempted a pass in that game, however, and it wound up being the last time he’d see the field during his freshman campaign.
Later in the season, it was Stroud who got the nod from Day after Fields was pulled in the fourth quarter of a 52-12 blowout at Michigan State. Perhaps most telling in how the backup quarterback position evolved as last season progressed was Stroud’s entrance into the College Football Playoff semifinal game against Clemson after Fields left with an injury. Stroud took just one snap —a handoff —before Fields came back into the game, but Fields’ unknown status in that moment likely meant Day was ready to ride with Stroud for the remainder of the game if need be.
Stroud’s emergence as Day’s preference late in the season could suggest he has a short lead on Miller in the race to the 2021 season opener. But like Miller, Stroud is also yet to attempt his first pass as a college quarterback, leaving plenty to be seen as the two fight for position.
Day said both returning quarterbacks are still trying to fully learn the offense, which asks a lot of them both in the passing game and the run game. He added that there was some “mental exhaustion” for both as the season concluded, as is typical for freshmen, but he feels they each have a solid understanding of what’s now in front of them.
“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 (Fields) did, and the stage. The stakes are very, very high here, and I think they learned that.”
While much of the focus is likely to fall on Miller and Stroud as spring practice approaches, McCord’s early arrival on campus will grant him an equal opportunity to make his case to Day and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis as the offseason progresses.
Like both Stroud and Miller, McCord’s size fits the bill for the prototypical quarterback, and his talent is unquestioned as an elite recruit who was courted by many of the country’s top programs. How quickly he will be able to grasp Day’s offense and develop comfortability in the system will go a long way in determining just how serious his chances are of pushing for the job.
Regardless of who will emerge as the leader of the pack, Day said it will be critical to give the trio as many game-like situations in practice “to figure out exactly what we’ve got.”
“We can’t go into that first game without knowing, or at least having an idea,” Day said. “I guess we’ll never know until we’re in a game, but we have to try to simulate the games the best we can in practice, which may be a unique way of doing the spring.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.