The Buckeyes’ headman can’t be afraid to make the tough decision if it’s the right one.
Now I know what you’re thinking: why would Buckeye Nation’s beloved college football coach want to be anything like the snake oil salesman that resides in the western-most limits of South Carolina? By all accounts, Ryan Day is as good a leader on the field as he is a person off it, and personally I wouldn’t want to change a thing about the man. In this instance, it has everything to do with roster construction and the ability to be ruthless in his decision making if the necessity presents itself.
Flash back to September of 2018. Clemson was coming off a 12-2 season the year prior that saw them win the ACC handily and earn the No. 1 overall seed in the College Football Playoff before ultimately losing to an Alabama team that would go on to win the national title. The Tigers were led by junior quarterback Kelly Bryant, who in 2017 threw for over 2,800 yards and ran for another 665 yards with 24 total touchdowns and eight picks. Bryant did not play particularly well against the Tide, completing just 50% of his passes for 124 yards and two picks, but he would return the following year to continue his role as the team’s starter — or so he thought.
Bryant did start the first few games of the 2018 season, but now breathing down his neck was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit and a near-perfect five-star prospect by the name of Trevor Lawrence. Despite it being his second year as the team’s starting QB after sitting two years behind Deshaun Watson, Bryant struggled a bit through the first four games of the new campaign, and it all came to a head on Sept. 22 against Georgia Tech. Little did he know that his start against the Yellow Jackets would be his last as the quarterback of the Tigers.
The Clemson offense wasn’t able to muster much against the ACC foe in the first quarter, as Bryant’s first two drives of the game netted just 13 total yards and one first down. Lawrence entered the game in the second quarter, and in his very first series led the Tigers on a seven-play, 74-yard touchdown drive capped by a TD pass to Hunter Renfrow — and he was only just getting started.
Lawrence would go on to finish the game completing 13 of his 18 pass attempts for 176 yards and four TDs with one interception, while Bryant’s day concluded with just six completions for 56 yards. The following Monday, Dabo Swinney announced that freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence would be the team’s starter moving forward. Bryant would wind up transferring to Missouri, and the rest was history. In the end, Swinney clearly made the right choice, as Lawrence led Clemson to a national title in his first season at the helm and will be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
Now switch gears, remaining in the 2018 season but instead taking a look at the situation in Athens, Georgia. Similarly to the quarterback room at Clemson, the Bulldogs were returning starting quarterback Jake Fromm. In 2017, Fromm led Georgia to the national title game, where they lost in a 26-23 overtime nail-biter against Alabama. That season, a sophomore Fromm threw for over 2,700 yards with 30 touchdown passes to just six interceptions, and it was clear he would return to be the team’s starter in the 2018 campaign.
However, unlike in 2017 where his backup Jacob Eason attempted only seven passes all year, Fromm now had some legitimate competition. A freshman by the name of Justin Fields had since stepped foot on campus — a five-star prospect ranked behind only Lawrence as the No. 2 recruit in the nation and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the class.
Still, Fromm resumed his starting job throughout the 2018 season, as head coach Kirby Smart was not willing to bench the incumbent starter for a highly-touted freshman even despite some struggles in his third year at the helm. That season, Fromm played seven games in which he threw for under 200 yards, and three where he threw for under 150. With Georgia’s power-run offense, it would’ve been a huge boost for the offense to have a capable runner at QB like Fields, but instead Fromm finished the year with just 41 rushing yards. Fields played mostly mop-up duty in year one, and after passing for 328 yards with four TDs and rushing for 266 yards and another four scores, he elected to transfer to Ohio State.
Fields would be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback in 2019, passing for nearly 3,300 yards with 41 touchdowns to just three picks and rushing for an additional 484 yards and 10 TDs. Fromm remained the starter at Georgia for a third year, passing for over 2,800 yards with 24 TDs to five picks. Fromm’s team got blown out in the SEC title game 37-10 to Alabama, while a hobbled Fields defeated Wisconsin to secure a Big Ten title and lost a narrow controversial game against Clemson in the College Football Playoff. Fromm was selected in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, while Fields led his team to the national title game in 2020 and is set to be a top-10 pick in a little less than a week.
It’s a lot easier to look at both of these moves in hindsight and decide one was good and one was awful, but part of the job as a college football coach is to evaluate talent do what is best to help your team win games. Swinney saw that Lawrence was clearly his best QB, and he won them a national title in year one. Fields was a more talented QB and a better scheme fit for Georgia’s offense, but Smart was unwilling to bench his incumbent starter and missed the College Football Playoff for the next two seasons with Fromm. Bringing us back to the current day, there is a chance that Ryan Day is faced with a somewhat similar decision in both of the next two seasons.
This year, Ohio State obviously does not have a returning starter with Fields off to the NFL, but he will have to make a choice between guys who have been in the program already for a year in CJ Stroud and Jack Miller, or his new five-star freshman in Kyle McCord. McCord and Stroud looked the best in the spring game and are likely the top two candidates for the job, and just because Stroud has been here longer doesn’t mean the battle can just be won on seniority — especially when Stroud did not attempt a pass in a game last season. Stroud is probably the favorite at this point, but Day cannot be afraid to start McCord as a freshman if he is in fact the best option for the job.
What will be perhaps even tougher is when the battle resumes next season, as Ohio State currently holds a commitment from the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in 2022 in quarterback Quinn Ewers. Not only is Ewers the top-rated player and QB in the cycle, but he is also one of a handful of prospects all-time to earn a perfect 1.0000 rating. He far and away the best and most highly-regarded quarterback coming out of high school since Trevor Lawrence, and even though the Buckeyes’ returning starter heading into that season will be only a one-year starter with multiple years of eligibility left whether it be Stroud, Miller or McCord, Day might once again have to make the tough choice of starting the best man for the job — even if that guy is a freshman.
The college football game has changed. Whether it be an increase in collegiate-ready talent across the board or the ease in the ability to transfer, top prospects usually expect to start right away, or at the very least in year two. Guys like McCord and Ewers have every right to expect to start, but there is only one starting job on Ohio State’s roster in any given season. The Buckeyes will likely lose at least two of these guys to transfers in the coming years as a clear leader emerges in the room, but that can’t skew your thinking in choosing the top dog.
Day cannot afford to make the same mistake that Kirby Smart made in letting Justin Fields walk to let Fromm keep his job on seniority. He must follow the Dabo Swinney model in this instance of playing the most talented player that will give you the best chance to win a national title. Ohio State will be in good hands regardless of who winds up slinging the rock the next few seasons, but there will be important decisions to be made in the quarterback room that Day must be comfortable making.