Replacing Justin Fields: Three Freshmen Walk Into a Shoe

[This is the first in a series looking at each of Ohio State’s key departures and how the Buckeyes will look to replace them. Up first, quarterback Justin Fields.]

Ohio State is losing quarterback Justin Fields a year early to the NFL but that was always kind of expected even back to when he transferred from Georgia to OSU after his true freshman year.

In his two seasons with the Buckeyes, Fields established himself as arguably the best quarterback in school history. He led Ohio State to two playoff appearances, was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year in both of his seasons, and would have won the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award both seasons if not for defensive end teammate Chase Young’s dominance in 2019.

A Heisman finalist in 2019, Fields threw for 5,373 yards with 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 22 games with the Buckeyes. He also added 867 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. His 63 touchdown passes are second in school history behind JT Barrett’s 104.

So not only will the Buckeyes be replacing their starting quarterback, they may be replacing the best to ever do it at Ohio State. No pressure.

The Candidates

The Buckeyes will enter spring camp in five weeks or so with three quarterbacks who have never thrown a pass in a collegiate game. One of the three will eventually win the starting job. Normally, this would be a major concern, but Ohio State has recruited at a high level and every time OSU head coach Ryan Day is coaching a new quarterback, that quarterback sets records.

The difference between the record-setting three of JT Barrett, Dwayne Haskins, and Justin Fields, however, is that all three of those guys had experience throwing the ball before they became the starter.

This year, the Buckeyes will rely on redshirt freshmen CJ Stroud and Jack Miller, as well as true freshman Kyle McCord. The expectation is that the job will come down to Stroud and Miller, but McCord has enrolled early to shrink any gap that the two returning quarterbacks may have built up.

While none of the three have thrown a pass yet, Miller and Stroud did get some snaps this year and both posted a rushing touchdown. Both showed more mobility than perhaps people expected. Stroud scored on a 48-yard carry this season while Miller ripped off a 21-yard run before scoring shortly after from two yards out.

Don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes head to the transfer portal for another Chris Chugunov or Gunnar Hoak if they can find one. Day said they don’t really have much room, but they will always be looking.

Spring Outlook

CJ Stroud eventually won the backup job this past season, but because of the disjointed nature of the year, he didn’t play all that much. As such, he never got to show what he could do in a game like Dwayne Haskins did in 2017 at Ann Arbor. This keeps hope alive for the other candidates that they can do something to outshine Stroud.

Day said they will “roll” Stroud and Miller in and out during practice, splitting reps as evenly as possible. Could it be a 40-40-20 type of equation with McCord being the 20? This would still give the “veterans” the majority of the snaps, but McCord would still get enough to show if he needs more.

Or will it be 33-33-33 early on in the spring before the numbers start changing? Don’t expect any decisions to be made or reps to dramatically change during spring camp because the coaches aren’t going to want to do anything that would cause somebody to transfer out.

Best Bet

It’s not nothing that CJ Stroud was the guy coming into the game when Justin Fields would have to leave for a snap with an injury. Ryan Day said all season long that the backup job was a week-to-week thing, and maybe it was, but every time they had to turn to somebody, it just happened to be a week Stroud had won the backup job.

With an entire year under his belt, along with an actual spring camp and fall camp, Stroud is the current betting favorite to win the job. And even though he hasn’t thrown a pass yet, a year in the system is meaningful. He and Jack Miller both know the offense, which is more than half the battle.

Kyle McCord has reason for optimism, however, because they’ve each thrown as many passes in a game as you have. There is no established starter here and everybody at the QB position will have an opportunity to show that they can handle the job.

In the end, however, regardless of who earns the spot, the offensive talent around the quarterback will allow the eventual starter to put up some very big numbers — and maybe even a few more records while they’re at it.