K.J. Hill did not think he would be back for his fifth and final season.
He left the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 thinking his career as an Ohio State wide receiver was over. But he made the decision to follow in the footsteps of those before him — Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon — to come back for one more year as the veteran guy in the receiver room.
It was not until Hill returned to campus for the spring that he met sophomore quarterback Justin Fields, the heralded five-star recruit who spent his freshman season at Georgia.
On Wednesday, Ohio State’s first spring practice, both were on the field, Fields taking snaps and Hill running routes, trying to duplicate the same chemistry quarterback Dwayne Haskins had with his three fifth-year receivers.
“You know, first day, kind of nervous,” Hill said. “But all of us just have to get our timing right with each other.”
Fields’ nerves were visible early in the practice period, overshooting receivers on short, 10-yard curl routes, leading receivers too far on out routes.
But to head coach Ryan Day, those mistakes are going to happen. The former quarterbacks coach said his players are allowed to fail because failing leads to growth.
The head coach said the quarterback who learns from his mistakes best usually wins the starting job.
And yes, Day said there will be a competition for the starting quarterback job, though Fields remains the heavy favorite to win the starting spot.
“It’s going to be a battle Day One,” Day said. “The guys were out there, we were splitting up the reps. During the spring, Mike [Yurcich]’s going to roll those guys in and out. Everyone is competing.”
The head coach said he does not have a timetable to determine whether Fields or redshirt freshman Matthew Baldwin will be the starting quarterback, but both will get equal reps with the first-team offense, something he said is healthy at every position.
Day said Baldwin has been in the offense for a year, but he has not had the opportunity to run it with the first team cut. He said the redshirt freshman looked good doing that in the first practice of the spring.
As for Fields, the head coach described him as a quick learner, doing a nice job in the meetings learning the offense with passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich, who is in his first season with Ohio State.
At this point of the season, Day said it was good to go out onto the field to get a feel for what the quarterback room — specifically Baldwin and Fields — can handle.
“Who are they? What is their identity going to be?” Day said. “It’s Day One, so it’s hard to tell.”
The expectations remain to find a leader behind center who has the ability to move the ball downfield consistently and have a way to self-diagnose strengths and weaknesses to better suit the offense the quarterback is running.
But Day is realistic. He said he expected for the spacing and timing of balls thrown from his quarterbacks to be off.
“Shoot, that’s even normal in the NFL,” Day said.
As practice went on, the head coach said the timing from all the quarterbacks improved and the ball came out well.
Despite acknowledging there is a long way to go with a long list of things to improve, Day said that he was encouraged by what he saw in the first practice of the spring.
And that is why he wants time. No matter the expectations behind Fields, the head coach said he wants to be prepared for whatever happens prior to the season opener against Florida Atlantic on Aug. 31.
“You don’t really know how it’s going to play out,” Day said. “It’s one thing I learned a long time ago — to do all that early on doesn’t help at all, it doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Day is not focused on naming a starting quarterback. Instead, he’s helping lead quarterbacks to learn the offense to prepare for the starting job.