Chris Chugunov is a simple guy; he just loves throwing the football.
That’s what got him off the beach he was lying on for months in summer 2018 after graduating from West Virginia and back in pads in the Buckeye locker room with two more years of college football eligibility.
Still, there was no guarantee that the career backup entering Columbus, Ohio, as the fourth-string quarterback would get the chance to do what he loves on the big stage.
“I mean, this time of year, my biggest challenge is staying warm on the sidelines, so you’d usually see me bundled up and whatnot,” Chugunov said.
Instead, the No. 2 quarterback — referred to as “Chugs” — on the No. 2 team in the country finds himself preparing for significant minutes in a mid-November Big Ten game that he’ll play in front of 60-70 friends and family members in his home state.
Ohio State travels to Rutgers as a 51.5-point favorite, nine points more than it was favored against Maryland, which it beat 73-14 this past weekend. Chugunov played nearly the entire second half against the Terrapins and could see even more time against the Scarlet Knights.
The Buckeyes are on the road, but it’s a home game of sorts for Chugunov, who grew up in Skillman, New Jersey, just a half-hour from Rutgers’ campus in Piscataway.
Besides readying himself for a game in which he may see his most action all season, Chugunov said it’s been a tall order just trying to get tickets for the sizable New Jersey contingent coming to see him play.
“I’m looking forward to it. I think the thing I’m most excited about is I have a large group of family and friends who can’t always make it out here to Ohio for games, so I’m excited to have them there to see me play,” Chugunov said.
Head coach Ryan Day said former Ohio State and Rutgers assistant coach Bob Fraser was familiar with Chugunov from his New Jersey ties and helped move the needle on the decision to take him into the program ahead of the 2018 season.
“He gave a little bit of a character reference there, gave us some information, which kind of allowed us to say, ‘Let’s take this guy in,’” Day said.
Chugunov said that when he arrived in Columbus, he had taken seven or eight months off from football, coming off a season in which he earned his first two starts at West Virginia following an injury to Will Grier.
The spotlight may have been too bright for Chugunov against blue blood Texas and Oklahoma programs; he completed a little more than 52 percent of his passes for West Virginia in the two losses before transferring out of the program in February 2018.
By the time he entered Buckeye facilities in August of that year, both Chugunov and Day said the graduate transfer wasn’t in great shape.
“When you walk in here, and you walk in the locker room here, everyone’s built like a brick house,” Chugunov said. “So coach Mick [Marotti] and I worked through that in season last year, and throughout this offseason, it’s been a focus of mine to try to be somewhere on the same level as everyone else here.”
A year later, Day said in fall camp that Chugunov had transformed his body, which the 6-foot-1 passer attributed to 30 pounds of added muscle.
The weight wasn’t the only change in Chugunov’s second fall camp at Ohio State; the entire quarterback room had changed –– save him –– after Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin transferred out of the program and Dwayne Haskins was drafted to the NFL.
Suddenly, Chugunov was the most experienced Buckeye quarterback on the roster, and he’d have to beat out only fellow graduate transfer Gunnar Hoak for a second-string spot behind sophomore Justin Fields.
“I think he was trying to figure out how serious to approach: Was he really in the mix? I remember telling him in the summer, ‘I think you give us the best chance to win, outside of possibly Justin here, so if I was you now, you need to be ready. We’re gonna need you.’ And so I think he’s embraced that,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.
Despite a lack of practice reps, Chugunov said his “hundred years of college football” have taught him to stay mentally prepared to enter a game at any time, and with Ohio State beating teams by an average of 42 points per game this season, he’s had quite a few opportunities.
Chugunov has thrown four touchdowns on 74 percent passing this season in a career-high seven appearances — none bigger than this past Saturday.
Having already thrown a touchdown to freshman wide receiver Garrett Wilson in the third quarter, Chugunov wanted another and launched a deep ball to the end zone from midfield with the Terrapin pass rush bearing down.
“I think the pros outweigh the cons there. I knew I was gonna get smacked, and I had the option to get the ball out of my hands quick and get, like, three or four yards or hang onto it a split second longer, get smacked and potentially get whatever it was, like 50 yards and a touchdown,” Chugunov said.
Despite being called back for holding, Chugunov’s accurate 46-yard heave displayed an arm talent some might not have known he possessed.
He’ll have another chance to show it off this Saturday, given things go as planned for the Buckeyes, but for Chugunov, that throw alone was vindication of his years spent on the sideline.
“I love the game. I love playing football. I love throwing the football too. It’s that simple for me –– that feeling of throwing the perfect pass,” Chugunov said. “For the five seconds I threw that one post up to [Wilson], that felt really good. That’s why I’m still playing, and I’ll play for as long as I can.”