Whether it’s his lofty recruiting ranking, the excitement of the new coaching staff’s theoretically exciting offense, or just the normal Ohio State fan hubris, Justin Fields has arrived in Columbus with an astonishingly high level of expectations heaped at his feet.
While new Ohio State Buckeyes’ head coach Ryan Day has not yet officially named the sophomore, who transferred from Georgia, as the starter, the announcement is expected to come on Monday. The likelihood of Gunnar Hoak or Chris Chugunov being named OSU’s starting quarterback without some sort of injury or disciplinary issue over the next few days, — which no one (knock on wood) is anticipating — are incredibly low.
No offense to the graduate-transfers from Kentucky and West Virginia, but the sheer level of skill and potential that Fields possesses in his 6-foot-3, dual-threat body are just too much to overcome. Put it this way, in order for the Buckeyes to start the season with Fields — who likely could have gone to any program of his choosing this offseason — on the bench would require Hoak or Chug to so far surpass Fields during fall camp, that it would be a dereliction of duty for Day to start anyone else. Anything short of that improbability and the ceiling is just too high for any but the new No. 1 to be behind center to start the season on Aug. 31 against Florida Atlantic.
What’s Fields working with?
In 2018, Fields was not only a five-star prospect out of suburban Atlanta, but he was the second-rated player in Georgia and the second-rated quarterback in the country. In both categories, he was behind only Trevor Lawrence who (checks notes) led the Clemson Tigers to a national championship last season.
As if that wasn’t enough, 247Sports Composite rankings indicate that Fields is tied as the eighth best recruit since they started tracking such things in 2000.
So, the expectations that fans in Columbus are experiencing in 2019, were also there in Athens, when he joined the Georgia Bulldogs in 2018. However, for whatever reason, Fields could not find his way on to the field, playing behind sophomore Jake Fromm. On the season, Fields was 27-for-39 (for a nice 69.2 percent) for 328 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
In addition, he had 42 rushing attempts for 266 yards and four touchdowns. While his passing numbers weren’t unimpressive for a true freshman, given the small sample size, the fact that he ran the ball more times than he threw it should tell you everything that you need to know about how he was viewed — and used — by Kirby Smart last year. While Fields generally only had the chance to lead the offense in mop-up duty, he got most of his competitive snaps in running situations; many times in the Wildcat.
One of the knocks on Fields during his time at UGA was that in practice, he was prone to throwing interceptions — something that has reared its ugly head during OSU’s fall camp as well. Perhaps this soured Smart on allowing the then freshman to throw the ball, or it could just be that his limited attempts were part and parcel with being the team’s backup.
Either way, when called upon in 2018, Fields was mostly there for his feet. Something that will have to change for him to help the Buckeyes reach their potential in 2019.
In Fields’ freshman year highlights from Georgia, most of the clips are from running plays:
What to expect of Fields?
While Georgia used Fields primarily as a runner — and a fantastic one at that — Day and new Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will be asking far more of him than just that. Both coaches bring with them a wealth of creative, pass-first offensive experience, and while Fields might not have the the requisite skill set to run their preferred styles, they are certainly seasoned enough to adapt their philosophies to the extraordinary talents of their new QB.
So, will Fields run the ball this season? Of course. Will there be some zone-read elements? Almost certainly. Will he be allowed to scramble when plays break down in front of him? I’m sure that they are counting on that. But, will the lack of legitimate depth behind him limit how much running the coaches call upon him for? Man, I sure hope so.
The play calling will also undoubtedly involve healthy doses J.K. Dobbins and whomever ends up being his backup. A commitment to the run behind the Buckeyes’ rebuilt offensive line is almost guaranteed, but for the sake of this discussion, we’re just going to focus on the passing aspect of OSU’s offensive game plan.
While the media has not been able to see a tremendous amount of practice yet, it is probably safe to make some assumptions as to what will be asked of Fields early on in the season when it comes to the passing game.
Fields is not going to be Dwayne Haskins, making seemingly every imaginable throw on the tree, and then some. He is also not going to be J.T. Barrett, making seemingly every imaginable correct decision that a quarterback can make.
Therefore, it is logical that Day and Yurcich will look to get the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible more often than not. This does a number of important things.
- Doesn’t force Fields to make too many complicated reads and decisions early.
- Gets the ball in the hands of OSU’s explosive receiving corps.
- Prevents opposing rushers from getting hits on Fields.
Throughout camp (and in his scarce opportunities at Georgia), Fields as shown that he has the ability to make the tough throws — as evidenced by these highly curated, hand-picked clips.
But, there is no doubt that as he starts to run the OSU offense against actual opponents for the first time, keeping things simple will be important to allow Fields to get acclimated and more experienced with his new scheme and teammates. So, in the passing game, expect bubble screens, three-step drops, and mesh routes.
With K.J. Hill at H-back, Dobbins and (hopefully) Demario McCall out of the backfield, and the full complement of receivers, Fields will have plenty of weapons to get the ball to quickly.
This type of game plan will certainly satisfy the three criteria that I mentioned earlier, but there is likely another component that would work for the first two, if not the third.
Throughout camp, Day has talked about how deep the wide receiving corps is. He has said that there will be a rotation of six or seven guys, not counting tight ends and running backs, who will be substantively involved in the passing game. Despite losing Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, and Johnnie Dixon off of last year’s team, Zone 6 is still very well stocked.
So, should the offensive hold up, Fields will likely have the opportunity to air it out down field to some of the Buckeyes’ home run hitting receivers. Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, Chris Olave, and potentially even true freshman Garrett Wilson are all players that could find themselves in one-on-one coverage down the field, and — for slightly different reasons — each has the ability to create space from his defender.
While I wouldn’t imagine Fields will be chucking it up 40-45 yards a dozen times each game, I do think that Ohio State’s talent on the outside necessitates taking those shots. It will also do a lot to loosen up defenses who might otherwise overload the box to account for the aforementioned quick hitters, Fields keeping the ball, and Dobbins out of the backfield.
What not to expect of Fields?
Alright, so I think it is likely that we will see the throwing portion of Ohio State’s game plan concentrate on short passes early in the season, with some deep balls sprinkled in to keep defenses honest and the wide receivers satiated. That leaves the intermediate game, something that I do not expect that we will see with much consistency from Fields, likely until at least the second half of the season.
With all of his big-arm heroics in 2018, Haskins made his mark in the middle of the field. His ability to anticipate where receivers would be and to throw them open was otherworldly. And, even though it was his first year as a starter for the Buckeyes, it was has third year in the program, working for years with many of the receivers that helped him set both school and conference records at an astonishing rate.
Fields has been in Columbus for going on seven months now, and while all reports indicate that he has been hard at work this whole time, it is difficult to imagine that he would already have the preternatural connections with the receivers that Haskins did. Those connections will certainly come, but they will take time.
So, while that develops, it would behoove both Fields and the Buckeye offense to put more playmaking onus on the receivers than on the quarterback (at least when it comes to the passing game).
Also, as mentioned before, Fields has a bit of a reputation for throwing interceptions, and while missing short and/or deep comes with its own inherent risks, they pale in comparison to missing over the middle, where there is generally a glut defenders looking to capitalize on even the slightest of mistakes.
There is no doubt about it, Justin Fields is an electric talent; the most gifted athlete to play quarterback at Ohio State since at least Terrelle Pryor Sr., but he is new to Ohio State, he is new to being a collegiate starter, so Buckeye fans should show some patience towards their new QB. He will presumably be in Columbus for at least two years, and based on what we’ve seen from Ryan Day’s work with OSU quarterbacks thus far, Fields will undoubtedly show tremendous growth during his time on campus, no matter how long that is. But, it is going to take time.
Keep that in mind if he makes some errant throws early in the season against FAU and Cincinnati. Keep that in mind if you think that the offense is too safe or repetitive against Indiana and Miami (OH). Fields has the talent to be an elite game-changer, and the coaching staff to show him how to get there, but he won’t yet be a finished product by the time the 2019 season kicks off two weeks from today.