Why Justin Fields Is Different From Previous Ohio State QBs

Photo: © Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

After they have had so much success in Columbus, why haven’t Ohio State quarterbacks been able to succeed in the NFL? It’s a question that’s asked constantly and it's a trend that’s impossible not to pay attention to. On one hand, it’s a noticeable trend that’s taken place even dating back to the bizarre career of Art Schlichter and now most recently with the Dwayne Haskins mishap with the Washington Football Team. 

What you come to realize, though, is that the Buckeyes have had every type of quarterback imaginable under center. Let’s use some of the examples that the team has had over the past two decades. Starting with Troy Smith (2003-2006), at the time, a record-setting quarterback for the Buckeyes who went on to become a fifth-round pick by the Ravens in the 2007 draft.

Smith was known for his strong arm, smarts, and athleticism. An easy selection as the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 2006 as he threw for 2,542 yards, 30 touchdowns, and only six interceptions, his biggest test came against Florida in the BCS National Championship Game. Following a 41-14 blowout loss, all eyes were on Smith and his draft stock. At 6-foot-0 and 225 pounds, Smith was labeled as undersized and treated as such as his body structure was labeled as his demise and proved to be among multiple reasons why his NFL career flamed out after only four seasons in the league that were mixed in with two brief stints in outside leagues.

2009 ushered in a new era of Ohio State quarterbacks where they experimented with the athletic types that were underdeveloped as passers, but they were confident that the scheme could help them eventually reach their peak. Terrelle Pryor (2008-2010) was the beginning of this era.

One of the most highly sought after recruits of any in recent memory, he was seen as a huge coup for the Buckeyes. After being labeled as an athlete, he was immediately placed at quarterback upon his arrival to campus. Clearly the most athletic player on the field, it didn’t take long for him to claim the starting spot. Entering his sophomore campaign, Pryor entered the season as the clear-cut starter. Pryor finished his second season with 2,094 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions to go along with 754 rushing yards and five touchdowns. 

The premise of Pryor’s career was how the team revolved around his athleticism. Going back to watch the most notable plays from Pryor’s career, it’s clear that his game centered around broken plays that involved him mixing heroics with his superior athleticism to his surroundings. But make no mistake about it, Pryor had a cannon of an arm that’s easy to see looking back through the fuzzy tapes of the Buckeyes explosive offense during a 10-2 season that was capped off by him finishing with a victory in the 2010 Rose Bowl over Oregon on the shoulders of his MVP performance. 

Pryor’s long strides coupled with the ability to throw the ball wherever he wanted with a quick flick of the wrist didn’t stop the NFL from questioning his long-term outlook at the position. After watching a select few TV copies of games, it’s easy to notice that there were limited occurrences of what can be labeled as high-quality or NFL-type throws. Pryor lived and died by playing in a game full of chaos that centered around using his athleticism to set up the team’s passing attack.

Selected by the then-Oakland Raiders in the third round of the 2011 supplemental draft, his career under center would last for six seasons, as he made it clear that he was open to switching to wide receiver. The previous plan of attack during his collegiate career to use his legs and running ability to provide new opportunities is a facet that hamstrung him during the early portions of his career. Never being able to overcome that, he returned to his roots of being an athlete as he transitioned to wideout. 

Following Pryor, there was a brief stint with Joe Bauserman during the 2011 season as the staff elected to start him over then-freshman Braxton Miller. After making the switch, this started the Buckeyes' run of having their own different blend of quarterbacks who were outstanding players on the collegiate level, but they had certain flaws that limited them on the pro level. The bugaboo for Miller was the multiple shoulder surgeries and how he was an athlete fitting in at the position despite being named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons (2011 and 2012). Going into his final season in Columbus, Miller welcomed a position switch as it was clear that in order to have a longer NFL career, his best bet was to move to wide receiver. 

This ushered in the J.T. Barrett era, who some believe is still arguably the best signal-caller in school history. Barrett himself unexpectedly had to start as a redshirt freshman after Miller suffered yet another shoulder injury. 

Proving to be a blessing in disguise for his career, Barrett became only the second Ohio State freshman quarterback to start a season opener. Producing magic all year, he went on to produce 2,834 passing yards, 938 rushing yards, and 45 total touchdowns during his first year, but suffered an ankle injury that didn’t allow him to finish the season. 

The injury opened the door for Cardale Jones to get his chance as the team's starter. Jones was different from any of the bunch as he had a rocket arm and above average awareness levels, but his accuracy was the area that needed the most work. After seeing the impressive flashes of his arm during the 2015 Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff, Jones was labeled as being the next great player at the position, but the magic only lasted seven games after that point as he was eventually replaced by Barrett. 

After reclaiming his spot, Barrett went on to start for the 2016 and 2017 seasons before entering the NFL. The book on Barrett was that he was the beneficiary of working the underneath areas, but his ball placement on throws down the field became more challenging. 

During the 2016 season, Barrett’s passes hovered around 6.7 yards per attempt. To put that into even more context, the 6.7 figure ranked 148th in the country. Yards per attempts is a great barometer for quarterbacks because it eliminates many of the manufactured touches and fluff of completion percentage that includes quick screens and jet sweeps. While completion percentage can be helpful, it only tells one side of the story that eventually leads to the truth.

The era that’s most recently implanted into our minds is the Dwayne Haskins one during his time under center. While his career hasn’t gone as planned so far with the Washington Football Team, let's first examine his strengths. Haskins finished his magical junior season having thrown for 4,831 yards, 50 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Eventually becoming a first-round selection, there was plenty of excitement about his future despite the small sample size. 

When mentioning sample size, it’s important to remember that he was in rare company. Prior to the 2019 draft, when dating back to 1973, there were 100 quarterbacks drafted in the first round. Mark Sanchez, Cam Newton, and Mitchell Trubisky were the only three who started 15 career games or fewer on the collegiate level and went on to become first-round picks. Haskins eventually joined that company after starting 14 games. 

Looking back at my own scouting report on Haskins, here are some key points that I listed about his strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths (+) 

Command: Despite his youth and with only 171 snaps under his belt prior to last season, Haskins greatest asset comes pre-snap. The Buckeyes gave him  full control at the line of scrimmage. They allowed him to set and adjust pass protections. Identifying and pointing to “MIKE” linebackers and potential blitzers is a trait that scouts will love. He also is very aware of where his hot reads and outlets are located against blitzes. There’s plenty of examples of where he’s shown to get himself out of potential danger. 

Short-to-Intermediate Velocity and Touch: Awareness of when to adjust the speed on his throws, showing touch down-the-field, and in the short-to-intermediate areas. The Buckeye offense contained lots of shallow crossers and underneath routes that worked back across the field. Knowing this, Haskins was depended upon heavily to place the ball in spots to allow receivers to gain yards after the catch. He didn’t make life hard for his receivers with his ball placement and has an advanced understanding of where to place it on certain routes.

Weaknesses (–)

Lower Body Mechanics: Footwork can become sloppy, especially when facing pressure. Has a bad tendency of locking his front leg out, which leads to over/under throws and severe ball placement issues. When going through progressions and reaching the next option, he doesn’t bring his front leg with him and it stays on the first or second read while his eyes and shoulders remain pointed towards the latter targets.

Mobility/Escapability: Not very much effort in trying to escape from the pocket, nor creating off-schedule when the opportunity presented itself. Heavy feet and thicker base limited his mobility. Below average athlete, but within the pocket, he has just enough to win. Outside of structure is where the conflicts come. Doesn't have top-end speed or athleticism to consistently escape and create outside for extra opportunities.

Reading back through his report, it’s easy to see that a lot of his concerns have come to fruition early on in his career. Haskins' biggest flaws during his brief stint as a starter came from his inability to adjust to the speed of the game—albeit he wasn’t provided much leeway and then his lack of lower body twitch didn’t allow him to create new opportunities with escaping the rush. 

Whenever Justin Fields' names is brought up, Haskins is a name that someone randomly mentions no matter how positive or negative the discussion may be, so let’s dive into why Fields is different than not only Haskins, but also his Buckeye predecessors. 

First, it's important to understand the various degrees of the Ohio State offense. The Buckeyes offense is constantly labeled as one that’s quarterback-friendly as coaches have been able to scheme specific players wide open. That still is the case, but under Haskins, the offense altered to suit his skill set a bit more in the short to intermediate areas of the field.

What’s noticeable is that the coaches staff knew that they had a quarterback that faced some challenges with throwing the ball down the field. Instead, they enabled him to attack the underneath areas and wanted the natural ability of their playmakers to take over after that. With players like Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell on the perimeter, this was a wise approach to match the strengths of their quarterback with the YAC ability of their wideouts.

A staple of the offense was the “mesh” concept. Mesh is a traditional passing concept of the Air Raid offense that makes life much easier on the quarterback because it eliminates a lot of thinking as far as coverage reads and puts more stress on receivers to read coverage on the run.

From the quarterback's standpoint, his key coaching point when running this play is ball placement, With the receivers and sometimes a tight end, there are three overlapping parts that usually form a triangle. The two receivers start on opposite sides of the field and run intersecting crossing routes over one another. This concept is considered to be coverage proof as it is useful against both man and zone. When running Mesh, receivers are taught to stay on the move if they feel someone on their hip in man-to-man, but against zone, they are taught to find the soft spot in the zone and immediately sit down in it upon crossing the nose of the center. 

As seen in the clip above, both receivers are crossing each other and identify the coverage as zone as they sit down. Another wrinkle added to this was the No. 3 wide receiver running to the middle of the mesh to complete the triangle read, which is where Haskins ultimately ended up throwing the ball.

The game that really stands out where the Buckeyes offense heavily relied on this concept was against Indiana. The group became so polished at mesh that they designed it out of various formations and began to add even more small wrinkles to it for the quarterback. Here are three different ways that they incorporated it against the Hoosiers alone. The different variations allowed them to dress it up in different ways because it also eliminated defenses from being able to tell tendencies in order to predict it.

Now, transitioning to the 2020 edition of the Ohio State offense, the mesh concept has been completely eliminated due to Fields’ skill set being much more diverse than Haskins'. What’s evident is that there’s more progression based routes as well as allowing No. 1 to scan the field from side-to-side in full-field fashion. A lot of factors go into this, as the trust that the staff has with Fields seems to be a bit better and he has the mobility to make plays work even though the play call may not be correct.

The first area where Fields is different from Haskins is his mobility. As stated in the scouting report earlier, one of Haskins' glaring flaws was his inability to consistently escape pressure. Now, he wasn’t a statue in the pocket by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn't an ultimate creator that would be able to always make multiple defenders miss in short areas prior to exploring new throwing avenues following that point. 

That last point is where Fields' game is exceptional. He’s outstanding with being able to avoid the first defender while keeping his eyes down the field in order to readjust his sightline to throw to new appearing targets. Mobility for young quarterbacks entering the NFL has basically now become a requirement due to the discrepancy in athleticism and talent levels overall between offensive and defensive lineman. Quarterbacks are now required to be at least average athletes that can get themselves out of harm's way.

Staying on course with the 2020 Buckeyes offense, a concept that they are repeatedly running that is a progression based read is “Y-Cross.” The concept has become a staple of the team's offense because it is one that Fields has seen cleanly this season and it also has been one of their most effective down the field plays.

Against Nebraska, Ohio State repeatedly ran this play knowing that the Huskers were a heavy two-high safety team. In the example above, this is a progression based read of Y-Cross that Fields reads beautifully. Reading the play left-to-right, Fields first starts with a persuasive play-action fake to catch the eye of the field safety. Seeing that the play fake influenced him down helped him in the long run, but starting with the first option in the progression, Fields begins with the outside receiver to his left as he’s running a vertical route. 

The boundary side safety (short side of the field) backpedals in a diagonal direction, which signals that he has to occupy that outside area of the turf. Based on the temp of the outside receiver coupled with him taking an inside release, Fields is quickly able to eliminate that option. Next, the tight end who’s attached out is the No. 2 wide receiver and simply runs a flat route to pull and occupy the SAM linebacker as well as the corner in the flats. Wasting little time on that, Fields continues to the third option in his progression, which is the cross route for the tight end attached to the formation to the field side–also known as the Y. 

With the Y experiencing so much traffic and collisions while running his route to the hash marks on the opposite side of the field, it triggers in Fields’ head that the safety that originally bit down on the play-action fake now had eyes on the cross. Knowing that the field cornerback is allowing inside leverage to his fourth option, which is a big post right over top of the head of the influenced safety, he delivers a great throw to the far wideout to the top of the screen.

Through three games so far this season, these are the types of downfield and multi-step progression based concepts that Fields has been asked to perform. A bit different from a season ago of where he had more “object reads”–ones where he’s reading mostly a single object or defender similar to run-pass options. This season, those types of reads have been mixed in with more full-field reads, which haven’t been popular in years past in the Ohio State offense. 

From 2003 through this present season, Ohio State has had an interesting mixture of quarterbacks. With Smith, Pryor, and Miller, it was more of the athletic type who the team fit the scheme around their athletic ability while Barrett, Jones, and Haskins were more natural throwers of the ball, but ball placement, accuracy, and manufactured touches were a key attribute behind their production. Fields is the best of both worlds as he has above-average athleticism and easily surpasses the athletic threshold needed for quarterbacks to thrive outside of structure—but he also has the passing ability to run a diverse passing scheme.  

An old scouting theory is to “scout the individual player, not the helmet logo.” That line of thinking and theory will be put to the test with Fields in a similar fashion as it was with Patrick Mahomes and Texas Tech quarterbacks. That’s not to say that that is the projected career outcome, but just an example of how the theory can be applied to a player who’s one of the best in the league.

Context and a singular line of thinking will be needed when evaluating Fields as the "Ohio State quarterbacks never succeed in the NFL" narrative will become an opinion that’s echoed everywhere. Based on Fields’ game film from this season, he’s completely different from anything that we’ve seen come out of Columbus in the past.

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Founder of ClimbingThePocket.com. Former QB and Coach at North Carolina Central Univ.

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