Ohio State has a starting quarterback.
With a caveat.
“We decided to name Justin the starter for the first game against Florida Atlantic,” coach Ryan Day said Monday, referring the season-opener Aug. 31. “I think all the quarterbacks have done a good job this camp. I met with those guys and told them all that really means is Justin will be taking the first snap on Saturday.
“Where it goes from there, who knows.”
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Fields has been the presumed starter since about the time he announced in January he was transferring from Georgia.
The exit of Tate Martell and Mathew Baldwin only strengthened the feeling it was Fields’ job to lose, so Day’s declaration came as little surprise.
Except for the conditional nature of the decision, that is.
“I think any time you’re naming a starter, they have to earn it,” Day said. “How do you earn it? You earn it by playing. It’s very hard to earn a job in 15 practices in the spring. Walking into preseason camp, you don’t just give somebody a job. Never believed in that, never will. You have to earn it.”
He would not commit to Gunnar Hoak, a transfer from Kentucky, or Chris Chugunov, a fifth-year senior who transferred from West Virginia last year, being the No. 2 quarterback at this point, but his describing the entire situation as fluid dominated the conversation anyway.
Though it may have been puzzling to those who thought the decision was a slam dunk, Day had a reasonable explanation.
Game reps trump all when it comes to nailing down a job, and those are in short supply for all of the candidates at quarterback.
“You need reps to really show what you can do,” he said. “Coming out of the spring, Justin at that point had a good feel for the offense but certainly was nowhere near ready to be the starter for this offense.”
That was still true a week into the preseason.
“Made some mistakes, turned the ball over. Right now he’s starting to scratch the surface,” Day said. “I still don’t think he’s where he needs to be. After this week, I think he played at a starter level, earned the job. We’ll see where it goes from there.”
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As he has all along, Fields insisted he wasn’t bothered by the resistance of Day to make the job his and his alone.
“No, not really,” he said. “It doesn’t change my mindset at all. As I said, just going out there and doing my job and just leading the team and kind of doing whatever they need to help win. So just go out there take care of the ball, make smart decisions. That’s kind of my mindset going forward.”
Fields was a five-star recruit when he signed with Georgia last season.
He played in 12 games for the Bulldogs and completed 27 of 39 passes for 328 yards four touchdowns as the backup to Jake Fromm, who figures to be the starter for at least one more season if not two.
Fields’ recruiting reputation preceded him between the hedges and again in Columbus, but it does not preclude the usual process of earning a spot, something he and his head coach both agreed.
“Of course I feel like I have to improve on everything,” Fields said. “Really, I’m not where I need to be. And I definitely think I have a long way to go, so I’m just gonna try to improve all aspects.”
As for what it will take for Fields to hang onto the job, Day had a long list of things he wants to see the sophomore accomplish.
“Well, you have to prove to your teammates and coaches that you’re worthy of being a starter,” the coach said. “A lot comes with that: leadership, ability to control the offense, making checks up front, protection checks, making good reads in the run game, locating the football, taking care of the football. It’s not just going out there and playing, it’s moving the football down the field.”
After the Owls, Ohio State plays host to Cincinnati.
Then the Buckeyes, who are No. 5 team in the Associated Press football writers’ preseason poll that was released Monday, travel to Indiana before returning home to host Miami University.
On Sept. 28, the Buckeyes take on their first preseason top 25 team, a game at No. 24 Nebraska.
After playing host to No. 18 Michigan State, they get the first of two open weeks on this year’s schedule.
That could be a chance to regroup, but the Buckeyes have to get there.
“Clearly you can’t look ahead, but that’s what we’re dealing with,” Day said. “We’re dealing with a six-week kind of season right there, then we come up for air, two games, go to Northwestern, (play) Wisconsin at home, bye week, then a four-game stretch in November. Kind of look at it like that. At the same time you have to be 1-0 on Saturday.”
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