Justin Fields put together a season that ranks amongst the best in Ohio State history, and the junior quarterback will have an opportunity that few Buckeyes have had before him: a chance to do it again.
While the 2019 season came to a bitter and uncharacteristic end when Fields’s pass found the hands of a Clemson defender rather than then-sophomore wide receiver Chris Olave, the throw was not set to be the final pass of the Georgia native’s collegiate career. The COVID-19 pandemic has created some uncertainty at the prospect of a 2020 season, but while the games themselves are up in the air, Ohio State has confidence in the player lining up behind center.
After a play that signaled the premature end of Ohio State’s season, Fields looked to put his third and most costly interception of his career behind him.
“It was the look we wanted, and it was basically a miscommunication,” Fields said after the Fiesta Bowl Dec. 28, 2019. “So that happens in life and you really can’t do anything about it now so you just have to move on.”
Turning the page on a season in which he accounted for the second-most touchdowns in a single season in Ohio State history, Fields will look to improve upon a season in which he excelled as the starting quarterback.
While Dwayne Haskins, who holds the Ohio State single-season record with 54 touchdowns accounted for, followed up his Heisman finalist season with a trip to the NFL, Fields will continue to work on his game at the collegiate level.
“He’s made a lot of great strides,” head coach Ryan Day said Jan. 15 in a press conference. “But there’s certain things in his game that we can really take to the next level. It’s great conversation, and I know he’s excited to hear what’s going on.”
Fields became the fourth Ohio State quarterback since 1935 to finish in the top three for the Heisman trophy. Before Fields, Rex Kern was the only Buckeye to return following a Heisman campaign in 1969, and his performance in his final season landed him back in the Heisman conversation at No. 5 in votes.
In Day’s three seasons controlling the Ohio State offense, he has coached J.T. Barrett to 47 touchdowns, Haskins to 54 and Fields to 51. Unlike the previous two quarterbacks, Fields will start for a second year under Day.
“A lot of it is just learning to play the position in terms of this past season — as time went along he got more and more responsibility and it’s now kind of year two,” Day said March 2 in a press conference. “So now we spent a lot of time talking about the intricacies of the position — protections, route progressions, coverages — things like that where we can get a little more involved and start to explain the playbook a little more.”
In his sophomore campaign, Fields threw 41 touchdowns and only three interceptions. The 3,273 passing yards were paired with 484 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
Although the numbers suggest little room for improvement, Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson sees Fields’s second year as one that will have more opportunities.
“I don’t think we just throw everything at him, but I think coach Day will trust him more,” Wilson said April 22 in a media teleconference. “I guess the playbook technically opens up — although it’s always been kinda open. I just think you’ll see him maybe be even more on target, more accurate.”
Fields may be back with the Buckeyes in 2020, but that doesn’t mean things have stayed the same.
Personnel changes have shaken up the Ohio State quarterback room with the departure of former quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich. With the elevation of Corey Dennis, who has been with the program since 2015, a familiar face will fill the position.
“I feel great with not only the fact that he can teach the way we teach it, but also we need some continuity in that room,” Day said. “Corey is a young coach who has a really bright future. And I think everything — if you put into Corey, you’re going to get back and invest because he’s so bright.”
Outside of the natural coaching carousel, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the yearly routine of spring practice. After only three practices, the Big Ten announced March 13 that organized team activities were suspended.
Despite the lost practice time, Day is not too worried about how it will affect his starting quarterback.
“I don’t think that spring practice is going to set Justin too far back,” Day said April 15 in a media teleconference. “I certainly would have liked to get those reps under his belt but we still have preseason camp, but he has a whole season under his belt. Where I think it’s going to be felt more is with the younger guys.”
After the Division I Council approved a preseason practice model June 17, Ohio State is set to begin organized preparation for the season July 13.
While the team begins to gear up for a season that may or may not happen, the quiet excitement surrounding Fields’s maturation continues to build.
“He looked very, very impressive those first three days of practice,” Wilson said. “Now we’ll have to get that back up to speed coming through the issues we’re dealing with, but it’s exciting, maybe, to see what he can do.”