There’s a quarterback battle afoot in Columbus –– just not at the top of the depth chart.
Justin Fields more or less had the starting spot locked up the day he chose to transfer from Georgia, and after a 51-touchdown season that earned him a Heisman Trophy finalist distinction, the key has long since been discarded.
But with two coveted freshman passers in C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller entering the program as early enrollees, the door has opened for the backup position –– and the driving seat for the future face of the Buckeyes.
“Our coaches here have done a great job of not making it a competition yet. But it is a competition,” Stroud said. “Me and Jack talk every day about the things we do. We compete against each other in the mat drills. It’s one of those things you get used to.”
With Fields likely playing just one more year before opting for a future as a top 5 draft pick, former Buckeye quarterback Matthew Baldwin could have had the keys to the car for the 2021 and ’22 seasons.
But after Baldwin transferred to TCU following the 2019 Spring Game, Miller –– a four-star prospect out of Arizona –– quickly climbed the theoretical ladder as the lone quarterback commit in Ohio State’s 2020 class.
For a long time, it stayed that way.
Miller committed to the program July 1, 2018, and nearly 18 months later –– up until Early Signing Day –– no other quarterback in the class had. Then, Stroud made things interesting.
There had been rumblings that the top 50 overall prospect and top 5 quarterback recruit would join the ranks in Columbus, and the Buckeyes offered Stroud a scholarship this past October. It was an offer that –– in the wake of the transfer portal era in college football –– the Buckeye staff mentioned to Miller first.
“I said, ‘No, you can offer whoever you want.’ I’m not that type of guy,” Miller said. “I mean, you bring in whoever you want, I’m gonna compete with them.”
The two weren’t complete strangers though. Miller and Stroud first met at the Opening and Elite 11 competitions in 2019.
But it didn’t become official until Stroud put pen to paper at Rancho Cucamonga High School in his native state of California Dec. 18.
In one fell swoop, Stroud gave Ohio State its first pair of four-star quarterbacks in the same recruiting class since 2002 –– when Justin Zwick and Troy Smith both joined the program.
That pair saw two national title appearances in their Buckeye tenures, and despite Zwick being a five-star prospect, it was the lower-rated Smith who ultimately won the starting spot –– and a Heisman Trophy –– by the end of his career.
It might have been nearly 20 years since two quarterbacks this talented entered as freshmen, but it’s far from the first contested quarterback competition for the Ohio State coaching staff.
In the past five seasons as a lower-level assistant, first-year quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis has seen Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow duke it out for playing time, and J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones as well.
“Sure it was a quarterback battle [between Haskins and Burrow], but even still to today, they’re best friends,” Dennis said. “So for it to sit there and be a malicious battle –– sure there’s gonna be a competition, but they’ve leaned on each other and that’s what we’re trying to build in that room.”
Stroud said he and Miller are already developing a similar relationship. He said the pair have gone out to eat several times, watched the Super Bowl together and described the relationship as being “like brothers.”
They may not discuss the elephant in the room much when they’re together off the field, but Miller said they’re both aware of it.
“Competition starts as soon as you get to Columbus, but we really haven’t –– we don’t spend time talking about it when we’re together,” Miller said. “I mean, it’s just football. At the end of the day we want the same thing and we’re both gonna work our tails off to get there.”
Stroud said he expects the offense to be tailored to his strengths, and he put himself on a short list of the nation’s top quarterbacks alongside Alabama freshman Bryce Young and Clemson freshman D.J. Uiagalelei.
Though head coach Ryan Day has seen both the benefit and detriment of the transfer portal, he doesn’t view competition among his incoming talent as an issue.
“It’s OK to have really good quarterbacks in a room together in an offense that’s exciting, and we’re going to keep developing quarterbacks the way we have,” Day said. “I know that’s a huge part of why they’re here.”