Justin Fields chatted casually with Dwayne Haskins as he lofted an effortless spiral down the field Saturday morning prior to his first public appearance in a Buckeyes uniform. The two quarterbacks — a record-setting, Heisman-contending, soon-to-be NFL millionaire and the 19-year-old newcomer expected to replace him — were just shooting the breeze.
Above them, on the giant video board at Ohio Stadium, a montage tribute to the 2018 football season was reaching its conclusion. The closing scene showed the inside of a victorious Rose Bowl locker room, where Urban Meyer dropped a red lanyard holding his coaching whistle around Ryan Day’s neck and pronounced Day the new head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Three days after that torch-passing in January, Fields called his buddy Haskins to tell him he was about to announce his plans to transfer to Columbus.
The first few months of Ohio State’s offseason — with Fields receiving what felt like a preordained waiver to play right away and Day sliding gracefully into Meyer’s old chair — unfolded in such a seamless transition of power that it was easy to forget the two guys tasked with replacing a pair of all-timers are brand, spanking new to all of this. The hand-wringing and turmoil that would logically follow the departure of a coach who won more than 90 percent of his games and a quarterback who threw 50 touchdowns passes in a season were silenced by smooth succession plans. The team’s spring game this weekend was a gentle reminder that continuing the type of work Meyer and Haskins produced on the field won’t be quite so elementary.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Day said a few minutes after wrapping up his first spring season as a head football coach at any level. “We’ve got a good team, though.”
The focus of Saturday’s scrimmage was largely on the quarterback position, where the new coach saw plenty he liked. Fields split reps running the first-team offense with redshirt freshman Matthew Baldwin. Both showed “flashes” of potential. Neither showed enough to clearly separate himself as the starter heading into the 2019 season.
Fields looks the part, with the same tools that made him a coveted recruit rated as the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class. His athletic, 6-foot-4 frame makes it clear at first glance why he is considered the favorite to take Haskins’ former spot. Other evidence to that end includes outracing a defensive back to the corner of the end zone for his first rushing touchdown of the spring game and launching a well-placed, 45-yard fade route out of his own end zone to Binjimen Victor that resulted in a 98-yard touchdown.
But beyond that bomb, which the lanky Victor caught over an overmatched walk-on teammate, Fields completed three of his other 13 pass attempts for 33 yards. Baldwin, who worked against both the first- and second-team defenses, finished 20-for-36 passing for 236 yards.
Recruiting reputation alone won’t be enough for Fields to win the starting job. His lofty ranking is a good sign that he has a bright future ahead of him, but it carries no guarantees.
The sample size for Fields is not large enough to hit the panic button. He missed a few receivers in a debut performance made choppy by splitting reps and the typical, unorthodox rhythm of a spring game. It was enough, however, to hit pause on the idea that Fields is ready to step in and pick up exactly where Haskins — a rare talent who exceeded expectations — left off.
“I know I can be better,” said Fields, who completed 69.2 percent of his attempts in a backup role at Georgia last fall. “I’ve done better at practice, but of course there’s always room to improve, so I’m just gonna continue to work.”
Fields said he is still working his way through a hefty playbook that most of his predecessors agree takes the better part of a year to fully digest and understand. Haskins had a couple of years of work as an understudy before jumping into the starting role. He also had the benefit of taking over an offense with a veteran offensive line and a deep list of experience targets in the passing game. This year’s Buckeyes are replacing four starters up front and three of their top four receivers.
Growing pains with that much inexperience are inevitable, and they showed up Saturday during a listless first quarter while the new players tried to find their rhythm.
This is not to say Day, Fields and the next wave of stars are incapable of continuing Ohio State’s high-scoring, standard-setting success in the Big Ten. The hints of that future were evident, as well, such as when early enrollee Garrett Wilson plucked a ball out of the air at a dunker’s height in the end zone early in the second quarter. Ohio State still has the talent to move at light speed, but the path to moving that way might consistently be filled with more missteps and clunky experiences than the first few months of 2019 held for the Buckeyes.
“They’re still a work in progress,” Day said. He was answering a questions about his quarterbacks, but he might as well have been talking about most of his young team.
“They’re still growing. They’re still making mistakes. To say we know where they are in terms of a finished product, it’s hard to tell. They still have a long way to go.”