Justin Fields completed passes to seven different receivers in his first game as quarterback of the Ohio State Buckeyes.
So naturally coach Ryan Day’s favorite Fields toss of the day didn’t end up in the hands of any of them.
“Believe it or not, it was one of his throwaways on third down,” the coach of the Buckeyes said Tuesday as he reviewed Ohio State’s 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic. “There was nothing there. It was something you maybe did not even notice.”
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The play in question came in the second quarter.
Ohio State led 28-0, and Fields had accounted for all four touchdowns so far in his collegiate starting debut.
After running 51 yards for a touchdown, he found tight end Jeremy Ruckert and receiver Binjimen Victor, respectively, on scoring plays of 25 and 32 yards. Both looked like busted coverages, leaving Fields’ intended target all alone and allowing an easy pitch and catch for six points.
Chris Olave shook his defender so badly on Fields’ third touchdown pass of the afternoon, that might as well have been a busted coverage, too, given how open he was.
But what about on third-and-8 from the Ohio State 46-yard line with about five minutes left in the second quarter?
Fields dropped back, saw eight Owls in coverage and opted to get rid of the ball when pressure came rather than try to force a completion.
That led to a Drue Chrisman punt and a smiling head coach.
"To me, that was my favorite play of the day because he's understanding what it means,” Day said of the sophomore who transferred from Georgia, where he was the backup quarterback last season. “It's very hard for somebody who hasn't played a lot of football to understand that that play right there is just as important as the play you make because if you try to throw the ball in traffic and turn the ball over, it's a disaster.”
If this being Day’s favorite play came as a surprise to anyone, Fields was not among that group.
"Yeah, I mean, he always tells me that in practice because he really emphasizes just playing smart, taking care of the ball,” Fields said Tuesday. “So I'll have a crazy touchdown in practice and then he'll tell me after practice, 'My favorite play is when you threw the ball away,' so that's not the first time I've heard that from him.
“He just likes it when I play smart and just make smart decisions."
Fields was a five-star prospect in high school and the No. 2 player in the country according to 247Sports Composite rankings.
At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, he is already strong but has the frame to carry more good weight, the arm to fit the ball into tight spaces and the legs to get himself out of trouble when the pocket collapses.
Most agree he has the tools to be great, but there is no substitute for experience, something both Day and Fields are aware of.
"You just have to know the situation really and what's what's best for the team,” Fields said. “I think he's really just ingrained in my brain just taking care of the ball and just making the smartest decisions because there's nothing wrong with sometimes on 3rd-and-long just throwing the ball away.”
As with most quarterbacks, especially those with great running ability, learning to play from the pocket is the greatest challenge for Fields.
“When you're athletic, you find ways to survive,” Day said. "How do you survive? You get yourself out of trouble and run. Somebody who is maybe not as athletic, they have to figure out ways to survive, and the way they survive is getting the ball out on time, having checkdowns, having rhythm.”
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Many of today’s young quarterbacks benefit from having far more opportunities to throw than most would have had in the more conservative high school offenses that predated the rise of the spread offense earlier this century, and the proliferation of seven-on-seven passing tournaments also present more chances for receivers to throw the ball to receivers in a competitive environment.
However, Day pointed out a downside to the latter, too.
“I think learning the play in the pocket is something that happens over time. Playing seven-on-seven, going to different camps, that's nothing like playing the game of football. You find more and more that quarterbacks are used to playing in seven-on-seven situations, and it's very unrealistic,” Day said, noting the lack of a pass rush can allow a quarterback to develop bad habits, such as throwing the ball lower than would be possible with offensive linemen and pass rushers surrounding him.
“When you have somebody who can escape the pocket, you have to figure out ways to keep them in the pocket and train them the right way so that he feels comfortable when he's in there,” he said.
Fields gave himself solid marks for start No. 1.
"As far as Saturday, I think I did a pretty good job in terms of staying in the pocket,” Fields said. “Of course, there's always some plays where you think you could have done (stayed in the pocket longer), but you can't really think about that in the game. You have to just play the game.
Good decision-making is not reserved for passing situations.
Fields also has to be smart about when to run, when to take a hit and when to slide or get out of bounds.
“I've never slid, to be honest, in my life,” Fields said. “So it’s kind of new to me, but I just think of the situation before the play.”
That means throwing the ball away or stepping out of bounds might take precedence on earlier downs while fighting for extra yardage is necessary on third or fourth down.
“You just have to really just go through the situation in your head and just know when it's smart to get down and when you have to take a hit,” he said.
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