In the past six seasons of Ohio State football, a backup quarterback has set the single-game touchdown record, made an All-American team and won a national championship.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields was named Ohio State’s starter Monday, but if former backups Kenny Guiton, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones are any indication, Gunnar Hoak and Chris Chugunov may very well be thrust to the forefront at any given moment during the season.
“I met with those guys and told them that all that really means is that Justin will be taking the first snap on Saturday,” head coach Ryan Day said. “And then where it goes from there, who knows?”
Despite widespread speculation that Fields has had the position under wraps for months, Day said the Georgia transfer was not playing at starter level the first week of fall camp, and only separated himself in the past week.
Still, Day said he has not decided the pecking order of the quarterbacks room after Fields.
Hoak, a redshirt junior who transferred from Kentucky in April, was thought to be the only player who could give Fields any push for competition, but Day said only having 15 practices in the program has limited Hoak’s ability to display his full repertoire of skills.
“Really, [Hoak’s] at where Justin was coming out of the spring, and so he’ll keep growing, day in and day out,” Day said.
Redshirt senior Chugunov is the only player of the three with a year of experience in the offense, and Day has spoken highly of him during camp. Day said the former West Virginia backup came to Ohio State to play and added that he’s changed his body in the offseason.
Fall camp has afforded senior safety Jordan Fuller the chance to evaluate his first-time starting quarterback, but it isn’t Fields’ passing that Fuller finds most impressive.
“He has all the talent in the world throwing the ball, but just what he can bring when the play breaks down, that’s just his big X factor,” Fuller said.
While that explosive athleticism has the potential to break games open for the Buckeyes, it will also leave Fields exposed to more hits, thus increasing his chance for injury.
Braxton Miller, who had 162 more rushing attempts than pass completions in his first three seasons as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, accrued several injuries that allowed a slew of passers to fill his shoes.
In 2013, an early-season injury to Miller saw Guiton step up to throw six touchdowns in the first half against Florida A&M — an Ohio State record at the time. Guiton’s 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions that year earned him fan-favorite status.
A shoulder injury to Miller the following year allowed redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett to set the Big Ten record for total touchdowns with 45, before sustaining an injury of his own to set up Cardale Jones for an unprecedented three-game national championship run as a third-string quarterback.
That story was fresh on Day’s mind Monday, as he referenced Ohio State’s 2014 season twice while discussing the potential for any of his quarterbacks to see time on the field.
“What happens if [Fields] rolls his ankle on the second play? Heaven forbid, but those things happen,” Day said. “You have to be ready.”
While the legitimacy of Hoak or Chugunov’s contention for the starting spot was questioned for months, the battle for the backup position is still underway, and the outcome will determine who is next in line to have a chance at creating more unlikely Buckeye lore.
Under his assertion that Fields will be replaced if he “doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do,” Day will continue the recent Ohio State tradition of maximizing offensive success no matter who is plugged in under center.
“Like we’ve done in the past, we put the whole offense in and then based on what the quarterback can do, we’ll tailor it to what his skill set is,” Day said. “Like we did with J.T. and we did with Dwayne [Haskins].”