College football — Justin Fields’ immediate eligibility a boost to Ohio State Buckeyes, new coach Ryan Day

NCAAF


That brisk wind you feel sweeping through the Midwest on Friday evening is a deep exhale from first-year head coach Ryan Day and the rest of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Day and his staff were certainly confident that transfer quarterback Justin Fields would be eligible to lead their offense in 2019, but having those assurances in ink heading into the weekend is cause for a deep sigh of relief.

Now comes the fun part.

Fields will be the most athletic quarterback Day has coached at the college level. Fields has a chance to be the most prolific, too, which is no small feat considering that Day coached record-breaking first-year starter Dwayne Haskins last season as offensive coordinator and helped reinvent an offense with program legend J.T. Barrett a year earlier. Fields’ arrival — and the NCAA’s decision Friday to make him eligible immediately — keeps Ohio State in contention to reach heights known to the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world.

“Obviously, we’re excited about having Justin,” Day said.

New transfer rules and star quarterbacks concerned about missing their chance to shine have created a high-wire act for coaches at the highest level of college football. For the foreseeable future, it appears teams in the market for NFL-caliber quarterbacks will need to be prepared to re-evaluate and rebuild their quarterback depth chart on a yearly basis. After two quarterback departures and one addition in his first five weeks behind the wheel of the Big Ten’s premier program, Day has made it to the other side intact. If Fields turns out to be as good as advertised, the Buckeyes might feel like they’ve traded up, improbable as that might seem.

In Barrett and Haskins, Day coached one quarterback who was a standout runner and another with show-stopping arm strength. Fields has both.

The former five-star prospect had a penchant for scrambling for big gains in his limited playing time at Georgia this past season. He has the speed of a running back and the physique to absorb a season’s worth of hits. He ran for four touchdowns with the Bulldogs on 42 attempts. His success rate through the air was almost identical — four passing touchdowns on 39 attempts. Scouts who watched Fields throughout high school say he’s equally as dangerous with his arm as he is with his legs.

Fields’ versatility is tantalizing when paired with Day’s track record and his lineage under innovative offensive minds such as Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer. Ohio State had to mostly put its RPO (run-pass option) section of the playbook on the shelf last season with Haskins, who is a notably better passer than runner. Haskins still credited Day with developing him to the point where he became just the sixth player in college football history to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season.

“I see myself using my legs a little bit more than Dwayne did last year,” Fields said in an interview earlier this week. “[But] I’m here to do whatever Coach Day asks me to do.”

In theory, the only limit on Ohio State’s offensive creativity this season will be how much Day feels his quarterback knows. All that tantalizing potential comes with the glaring caveat that Fields rarely played in his only college season, and when he did see the field it was usually in a mop-up role.

Day said many times during Haskins’ run to a Big Ten title last season that the two years Haskins spent on the bench were essential in him learning the Buckeyes’ offense and develop into a college-ready quarterback. He’s honest in his apprehension about how much Fields would be able to digest before September, assuming he wins the starting job.

Fields and new quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich dove into the learning process together in January. Fields said he feels comfortable with what he’s learned thus far, but he’s biting off only small chunks of what previous Ohio State quarterbacks have called a complicated playbook. Day said he plans to introduce the offense to his young quarterbacks in small pieces this season.

“They can handle so much in the first year, and as you get into year two and three, they start to be able to take more on as it goes,” Day said. “That’s part of being a coach, understanding that.”

Day cited Clemson’s success in bringing true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence up to full speed bit by bit during the Tigers’ national championship run as an ideal approach. Comparing another first-time starter to Lawrence — who chased former starter Kelly Bryant out of a job and out of the program in his first month on the field — would be foolish in most cases. It’s far less of a stretch with Fields, who was neck-and-neck with the Clemson star at the top of recruiting rankings in the Class of 2018.

Launching itself into the new quarterback high-wire act worked out well for Clemson. Ohio State will have to wait to find out if acquiring Fields will prove to be as fruitful (Vegas thinks so, as Westgate changed Ohio State’s odds of winning the national championship from 12-1 to 8-1 after news broke), but for now they’ve cleared the first major hurdle and can breathe easy for a few days.



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