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Ohio State QB competition not like years past

By DOUG LESMERISES • Apr 15, 2019 at 10:00 PM

COLUMBUS — Justin Fields had never before thrown a pass in Ohio Stadium, not in any setting.

So his 98-yard touchdown to Ben Victor in Saturday’s spring game showed a little something. It was also a sideline route to a senior with a 7-inch height advantage over a walk-on, so, nice ball, but like with everything in this quarterback competition, consider the context.

Like ... Joe Burrow would be smoking these guys.

In 2019, as in 2018, Ohio State is once again hosting a quarterback battle, but things couldn’t be more different. A year ago, one Dwayne Haskins throw to Jaylen Harris in the spring game told me everything I needed to know. Haskins had to start, and that’s the call that Urban Meyer made. Burrow transferred to LSU 24 days after the spring game.

Those two guys in Ohio State’s spring game last year? They would up going 23-4 leading teams that finished No. 3 and No. 6 in the nation, throwing for a combined 7,725 yards and 66 touchdowns. Haskins accounted for 75 percent of the touchdowns and 63 percent of the yards, so the Buckeyes picked the right guy. But that was battle of two sure things.

Whatever Fields and Matthew Baldwin do this fall, they won’t combine for 7,000 passing yards. If you were looking for that throw or that run or that moment Saturday that told you, “This is Ohio State’s quarterback,” it didn’t come, 98-yard touchdowns notwithstanding. This QB battle played out more like a JV version of Haskins-Burrow.

You could see how they might get there. But they aren’t there yet.

“When you had Joe and Dwayne here, they didn’t have a body of work on the field,” Ryan Day said after Saturday’s game ended his first spring as head coach, “but they had a body of work practicing. And the coaches and myself, we had gone through it, and we kind of knew what we had, and we saw them in the game and we had to kind of make a decision who was ahead right there.”

That’s not this. Day went back to what he said before about Fields and Baldwin, that a year ago at this time, both of them should have been in high school. Both were in spring football instead, Baldwin at Ohio State and Fields at Georgia, but it’s Day’s way of emphasizing how young they are.

“They don’t have that body of work,” Day said. “They’re still a work in progress, they’re still growing, they’re still making mistakes. So to say we know where they are in terms of a finished product, it’s hard to tell and they still have a long way to go.”

They do and that’s fine, because there’s time. The timeline isn’t the end of spring, it’s the end of preseason camp. But if there was any last Ohio State fan waiting for a version of Haskins in 2019, Saturday should have dispelled that notion.

Baldwin completed 20 of 36 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions, playing for both the Scarlet and Gray teams in a game that wasn’t much of a game, with no full tackling, no live quarterback play, limited reps for the veterans and a running clock in the second half.

Fields completed 4 of 13 passes for 131 yards, with that 98-yard TD and no picks, while also running eight times for 38 yards and a touchdown. The Buckeyes didn’t run the QB much, and what Fields showed getting to the edge on a 5-yard touchdown scamper teased his running ability. There will be more of that in the fall, and it may be what separates Fields from Baldwin the most. But for now, the Buckeyes held back there.

It’s the nature of spring games, but the first-team offense did little in the first quarter going against the first-team defense, Fields and Baldwin a combined 4 for 11 for 53 yards in the first quarter. They moved the ball more effectively later against defenders unlikely to see the field much in the fall.

This was just the last of 15 practices, and a two-hour slice isn’t what spring ball is about, even if 61,102 people watched it. A year ago, Haskins and Burrow knew how to do the job. They’d been full-season backups before, and Haskins had subbed into the Michigan game. The issue was how well they did it.

Fields and Baldwin are still learning the basics.

“I don’t know the full playbook yet,” Fields said. “I’m working my hardest to learn it as fast as possible. The the stuff we have in right now I feel I have a grasp on.”

Fields gave himself a C-plus for the spring game but was generally satisfied with the spring as a whole, saying he’d have a good day followed by an uncertain day if new plays were installed.

Baldwin didn’t speak with reporters after the game because he couldn’t be located in the locker room, so the lack of Baldwin quotes here isn’t a reflection on the competition. But as I’ve said all along, it would serve as a shock if Fields doesn’t win the job, even if Baldwin made a few more throws Saturday.

For now, Fields used the term “growing pains,” which is the same phrase Day has used about his quarterbacks. In replacing Haskins, who walked into Ohio Stadium with Fields on Saturday, offering his advice, there wasn’t a perfect solution. Tate Martell, once expected to compete this spring, transferred to Miami after the season. Reports from a Hurricanes scrimmage Saturday had him struggling through a 4-for-11 day, some observers wondering if he’d wind up third on the Miami depth chart this fall.

So the Buckeyes have their two guys. They’re just not like the two guys last year. Not now. And probably not by the start the of the season.

“I’m not trying to fill Dwayne’s shoes,” Fields said. “I just came to Ohio State to be the best quarterback I can.”

The Buckeyes didn’t see the best of their quarterbacks Saturday. The season starts in 20 weeks.

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