COLUMBUS — Questions. Always questions. Justin Fields answered them all last season.
Now, he has a new one to answer. Can he be even better this season than he was last year?
Fields, heading into his second season as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, arrived at Ohio State in January of last year as a transfer from the University of Georgia.
He had thrown more passes in spring games — one at Georgia and one at Ohio State — than he had in real games when he started in the Buckeyes’ opener last fall.
So there were some questions about exactly what Ohio State had with Fields. Was he as good as his reputation as either the No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback, along with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, in his recruiting class coming out of high school?
It didn’t take long to see that what OSU had was an exceptional quarterback who could get the ball into the end zone from anywhere on the field with his arm or with his legs.
Fields completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,273 yards and 41 touchdowns with only three interceptions and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He rushed for 484 yards and 10 touchdowns when Ohio State won the Big Ten championship and finished 13-1 after a controversial loss to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal.
As he and Ohio State rolled on, some people questioned whether he could stay healthy as a dual-threat quarterback.
The answer was yes and no.
Fields came back from big hits against Penn State and Michigan and finished those important wins after trips to the medical tent on the sidelines.
But he wasn’t quite the same quarterback after those games. None of his rushing touchdowns came in OSU’s final five games.
He recently admitted last year’s sprained knee held him back in the last four games of the season.
“Later in the season it had a big effect on me. There were times off the football field where it would hurt to walk,” he said.
Now, as a junior, Fields says he is “fully healthy” and ready to lead another run at a national championship by Ohio State and to try to win the Heisman Trophy.
“I’m just excited to get out there and show the world what I can do and what my teammates can do,” he said.
He is a different quarterback, a different leader than he was last year.
Leadership is the biggest thing that stands out for his coaches and his teammates when comparing this year and last year.
Coach Ryan Day says he challenged Fields to improve his leadership skills in the offseason and gives him a grade of A+ in that area.
“He’s really tough. I think the way he was down the stretch last year showed his physical toughness and his mental toughness to come back and play after really taking some shots is when he really won the team over. He had a really unbelievable offseason and showed up in great shape. This is an opportunity for him to be the leader of Ohio State and have a great, memorable year,” Day said earlier this year.
In a recent Zoom conference, Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said, “I think probably where he has grown the most is a year ago he came in as the quarterback, the new guy, and I don’t think he tried to force being more of a leader. Now that he has had a great year and has some great leadership skills he is doing a little bit better job of doing what you think a quarterback is going to be — a strong leader.”
Tight end Jake Hausmann recalled an example of Fields’ leadership on that same call when he described the quarterback running a pass pattern in practice to show the receivers how it should be run.
“He’s really hands-on. In the past six months he’s been a really vocal leader. I think anyone coming in fresh and new, they don’t want to assume that role right away. He has always been a natural leader, but I think in the last six months or so he has been a lot more vocal and guys have been following his lead,” Hausman said.
Running back Trey Sermon has been at Ohio State only a few months after transferring from Oklahoma, but he has known Fields since high school.
“He’s a phenomenal guy. Everybody respects him. He commands the offense, and everybody respects him,” Sermon said.
Fields’ leadership was evident in his reaction when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the Big Ten to cancel its season in August before reinstating it in mid-September.
On the surface, Fields seemed like a prime candidate to opt out and concentrate on the NFL draft like some other probable first-round selections in college football did. Instead, he made it clear as long as he thought there was any hope of Ohio State playing this football season, he was planted in Columbus.
He even created an online petition asking for the return of Big Ten football that more than 300,000 people signed.
Fields says he has taken a deeper dive into Ohio State’s playbook in the offseason.
“Last year I was new to the playbook. I didn’t ask why we were calling a certain play here or what Coach Day’s goal was. So (now) I just try to pick Coach Day’s brain about his reasoning why he’s calling a certain play at a certain time in a game.”
A year ago, Fields was backed up by Chris Chugunov, a West Virginia transfer, and Gunnar Hoak, a Kentucky transfer.
This year, Hoak and two highly-regarded freshmen, Jack Miller and C.J. Stroud, are the backups. Hoak threw six passes last season, and Miller and Stroud, who enrolled early, got only three days of spring practice because of the pandemic.
Will one of the freshmen emerge as the No. 2 quarterback before the opener despite their limited experience?
Day said no decision has been made on who will be the backup, but that call needs to be made by the opener.
“We have to know what we have going into the first game if something would ever happen,” he said.
“Jack and C.J. are both getting a bunch of reps (repetitions) with the twos (second-team offense), and we try to mix Gunnar in as much as we can. He kind of had last year so we’re trying to get the other guys up and running. They didn’t have the spring or the preseason to kind of see where we’re at. As time goes on Gunnar will get more and more reps.
“It’s been good. I think all three of those guys — CJ, Jack and Gunnar — have done a really good job of picking up the offense since they’ve been here. They’re going to have to be ready to go this season because you have to have depth at every position. That’s a very important area,” Day said.
But the most important area when it comes to Ohio State’s quarterback situation is keeping Fields on his feet and healthy.
Fields’ leadership showed in that area, too, when he helped convince All-American guard Wyatt Davis to return to Ohio State after he had indicated he was leaving to get ready for the NFL.
“Of course I was calling Wyatt,” Fields said. “I think I was annoying him a little bit. But a quarterback is only as good as his offensive line. So I’m trying to have the best O-line in the country. That’s only going to make my job easier.”