There’s a holding pattern on reviews that could be written about Ryan Day.
Thus far, the first-year head coach checks most boxes: His first recruiting class is No. 2 in the nation, he has hired five assistant coaches with great track records at either the college or pro level and maintained Ohio State’s support staff.
The program’s veins course with talent that took home a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory in 2018, its muscle is secure under former Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year Mickey Marotti and the nervous center is firing well under accomplished assistant coaches.
All that’s left is for the top mind to prove he can move it all in sync on the big stage — a big factor in how he handles the sport’s most important position, and with a quarterback that is the highest-rated recruit in the history of a program transfers in from another school, the expectation is that he starts immediately.
That hasn’t been the case for sophomore Justin Fields since transferring from Georgia. Day continues to reiterate that there’s competition, whether from redshirt freshman Matthew Baldwin in the spring before he transferred to TCU or redshirt junior Gunnar Hoak, a recent transfer from Kentucky.
“Justin and Gunnar are going to compete like heck to go win the job,” Day said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to who can play the game.”
Some would point to then-redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins’ performance in 2018, setting school records for yards, touchdowns and completion percentage, as a reason Fields could be a plug-and-play.
At Big Ten Media Days, Day dispelled the comparison of Fields to Haskins, stating that the latter’s experience in the program allowed him to put up the numbers he did as a first-time starter.
“A lot of people think, ‘Dwayne went from zero to 60 so fast, that he just jumped into the Heisman Trophy race,” Day said. “That was a very different scenario than Justin Fields.”
Day said Fields is still learning the offense, and therefore can’t be named the starting quarterback.
“He’s got a step ahead of Gunnar, because Gunnar just got here. He didn’t even go through the spring,” Day said. “[Quarterbacks coach] Mike Yurcich is new to our staff as well. That whole room is literally in the first step of the progression.”
Hoak is an Ohio product and former three-star high school prospect, the No. 40 pro-style quarterback from the class of 2016, per 247Sports. There’s not a large sample size from his time at Kentucky; in 2018 he completed 13 of 26 passes for 167 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
He served as backup to freshman Terry Wilson, who finished the season completing 67 percent of his passes with 1,889 yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
At Georgia, Fields went 27-for-39 with 328 yards and four touchdowns through the air, adding 266 yards on the ground. He served as backup to sophomore Jake Fromm, who ended 2018 with 2,761 yards and 30 touchdowns.
On paper, Fields is the clear choice, and there are obvious advantages to naming a starter at quarterback sooner rather than later.
For example, chemistry with receivers, command at the line of scrimmage, leadership and especially knowledge of the offense are hard to develop when you’re splitting first team reps with someone else in practice. Teammates need to know who to look to.
Once Yurcich starts game-planning more thoroughly, practices can be designed to train the team around Fields’ strengths.
This means one of two things for the team entering camp, and both will carry heavy influence on the start of Day’s Ohio State career: Either Fields is finding difficulty living up to the hype as the No. 2 player in his class and truly is in a battle with Hoak, or Day is allowing a “competition” to play out in an effort to exemplify his core values to players and ensure Fields doesn’t grow complacent.
“One of our core philosophies is you don’t just get the starting position. You have to earn everything you get around here,” Day said. “He hasn’t done that.”
There are those who would say, given Fields’ apparent advantage as a prospect, that it’s to keep Fields on his toes and demonstrate the core values Day emphasized. After all, Day acknowledged that Fields has all the physical tools, pointing out his size, athleticism, arm strength, accuracy and intelligence.
But there’s no track record with Day as a head coach. He’s never dealt with a situation like this before. That makes it harder to say for sure one way or the other.
If that is the case, however, keeping the facade going for too long may yield negative returns — not only because you aren’t getting those advantages from naming a starter early, but it could also hurt the starter’s confidence.
It will all be a matter of timing. Name Fields the starter too late, and it could have lasting repercussions on the offense.
“If [the competition] goes into the third week of preseason camp, then either they’re both competing at a high level or nobody’s stepped up yet,” Day said. “We’d like to have it within the second week of camp.”
Then there’s the other option, that there truly is a quarterback battle.
A review of the previous three quarterback battles that wound into the regular season at Ohio State:
In 2015, with a national title-winning quarterback in Cardale Jones and the program’s career passing leader in J.T. Barrett, the passing offense averaged the second-fewest yards per game under Urban Meyer. The year prior, the pair averaged a combined 59 yards more per game when splitting time due to injury rather than competition.
In 2011, senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller both finished under 55 percent completions while the team limped to its first and only losing season since 1988.
In 2008, senior Todd Boeckman, fresh off a 2,379-yard campaign, and freshman Terrelle Pryor, a five-star recruit, combined to lead the worst passing offense during former head coach Jim Tressel’s tenure.
There’s just cause to tread lightly.
Regardless, it will be a team effort to get the new signal-caller adjusted.
“Especially in those first six games, there’s gonna be growth, there’s gonna be mistakes, and we’re gonna have to work through those things,” Day said. “Make sure we’re transparent with the rest of the team that that position’s gonna need help.”