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Rob Oller: Quarterback-rich Ohio State reboots as Fields exits to NFL
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Rob Oller: Quarterback-rich Ohio State reboots as Fields exits to NFL

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Justin Fields is leaving for the NFL, which reveals a curious oddity that bodes well for Ohio State next season and beyond.

Two former Michigan quarterbacks won NFL playoff games on Sunday; Tom Brady with Tampa Bay and Chad Henne with Kansas City. Ohio State’s most successful NFL quarterback was Mike Tomczak. Yet Michigan at the moment can’t find a top-level QB to save its life and the Buckeyes are pumping out first-round picks in Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow (partial credit) and almost certainly Fields, who is expected to be the second or third quarterback drafted, behind Trevor Lawrence.

First, though, is the matter of Fields’ career at Ohio State. The uber-talented junior had a chance to become the No. 1 or No. 1a quarterback in school history. He was right there with Troy Smith, especially after throwing for a career-high 385 yards and six touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson and Lawrence, despite playing much of the game in pain after taking a helmet-first hit to the torso.

If only Fields had come close to repeating that performance against Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Alas, back-to-back brilliance was not to be, in part because of lingering effects from the injury and because Alabama’s defense was that much better than Clemson’s. The Crimson Tide cooked up a 52-24 smoke job that barbecued Fields’ bid to overtake Smith in OSU lore.

Instead, Fields finished his two seasons in Columbus with an otherworldly 20-2 record as a starter — second only to Rex Kern’s 25-2 mark from 1968-70. But both of Fields' losses came in playoff games, when on the biggest stage he could have sealed his legacy as best ever. (Smith was 3-0 against Michigan and won the Heisman Trophy but never led OSU to a national championship win.)

Fields in 2020 played relatively poorly in wins against Indiana and Northwestern. The IU game, when he threw three interceptions, cost him any chance at winning the Heisman, but he could have eliminated those hiccups by leading the Buckeyes to their seventh national title. Had that happened, his sizzling statistics, which included single-season school records for completion percentage (.702) and passing efficiency rating (181.4), would have helped build his case for best ever.

Instead, he joins the list of all-timer almosts, which is still impressive if not royally superlative. Dozens of former Ohio State quarterbacks would welcome being written into the same paragraph as Joe Germaine and Braxton Miller, and in the same sentence as Haskins and Kern.

I expect Fields to enjoy a more successful NFL career than most of his esteemed predecessors. He was well-served by Ryan Day, who previously coached QBs in the NFL, and Fields’ combination of size (6 feet 3, 225 pounds), speed (4.5 in the 40) and toughness (see Clemson game) make him a fair combination of Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton, to whom Fields has compared himself. He has the arm strength of a Russell Wilson and with seasoning will improve at reading defenses.

With such off-the-charts talent leaving the program, how will the Buckeyes survive losing Fields? Very well, thank you. C.J. Stroud, the likely starter in 2021, must be enough of a Fields facsimile to have convinced receiver Chris Olave and tight end Jeremy Ruckert to return for another season. Neither would stick around if determining OSU’s next quarterback could not get him the ball.

As noted, Day’s den has become a destination spot for quarterbacks destined for the NFL. (Michigan, not so much, which is the main reason the Wolverines will continue to struggle against the Buckeyes.) The Buckeyes are a QB magnet not only for recruits — two five-star and two four-star quarterbacks have committed in the past two years — but also through the transfer portal (Fields).

Quarterback being the most important position on the field, Ohio State is sitting pretty both now and later. Now: Stroud and Jack Miller. Later: Quinn Ewers is the top-ranked quarterback recruit in the 2022 class. The Buckeyes also signed five-star recruit Kyle McCord to the 2021 class.

That is a stockpile of quarterback talent that almost certainly will not last; one or more of the above-mentioned are likely to transfer, as Burrow did in late spring of 2018. But think about how good the starter must be if the blue-chip talent assembled behind him sees little chance of unseating him. Plus, high school underclassmen have their eye on the snappy offense happening in the Horseshoe.

Fields’ exit leaves a huge hole, but the Buckeyes have shovels of quarterback talent to fill it, at least enough to make Jim Harbaugh wonder why he can’t find anything as rich in the chalky soil he recruits.

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