COLUMBUS, Ohio — Kentucky ended its quarterback battle last Sunday when head coach Mark Stoops simultaneously announced that Will Levis had won the job and Joey Gatewood was entering the transfer portal. Tennessee’s four-man QB battle shrunk to three on Thursday when former starter Brian Maurer announced he was transferring.
From Notre Dame to Georgia to Oregon to Miami, more and more major programs are starting transfers at quarterback, and at Ohio State, the Buckeyes are replacing two-year starter Justin Fields, who transferred from Georgia.
So C.J. Stroud being named the starting quarterback for the opener against Minnesota by Ohio State coach Ryan Day on Saturday is only half the story. What about the quarterbacks who aren’t starting? Are they staying?
I asked Day about that, citing some competitions at other schools that led to immediate transfers. He doesn’t believe that will be the case with the Buckeyes and the other QBs who were battling with Stroud — freshman Kyle McCord and redshirt freshman Jack Miller.
“Those guys, they’re in it for the long haul,” Day said. “They’ve been great teammates, and they know the focus has to be on development. We’ve talked about this early on, we knew that there was going to be one quarterback who started against Minnesota, that’s the only thing that’s guaranteed. And they’re all here to continue to work and develop and grow, and their attitudes have been excellent. So that’s been their focus.
“Now listen, we get to January, you’ll see what the year brings, and I think we’ll come up for air and reassess. And that’s all fair. I totally get it. But for right now I know that they’re committed and they want to be here.”
Stroud and Miller are second-year players, while McCord and the newly arrived Quinn Ewers are first-year players. That’s a crowded and talented QB room, so let’s put the futures of the non-starters into context now that the first decision about them has been made.
Quinn Ewers, No. 1 recruit, Class of 2021
Formerly the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022, Ewers announced on Aug. 2 that was reclassifying to the Class of 2021 and enrolling at Ohio State. The Buckeyes opened preseason camp two days later, but Ewers wasn’t in Columbus and cleared to participate in practice until Aug. 15. He tweeted a photo of himself at practice on Monday with the caption, “Hey, y’all.”
He was never a contender to play early this season, but his early progress has already been held back. Day said Saturday that Ewers hasn’t participated in the last several practices. He didn’t call it an injury, but did say it’s a physical issue that will keep Ewers out for at least another few days.
“He started out early on, and we were kind of getting him indoctrinated into the offense and everything like that,” Day said. “He’s been unavailable the last couple days. So we’ll get him back here at the end of next week.
“It’s been hard for him to kind of step in and then become unavailable. But I think the guys have done a good job of making sure that, they see somebody who doesn’t have the recruiting class with him. And they’ve done a good job of reaching out to make sure he’s good.
“But we’ll get him back towards the end of next week, and we’ll get back to work.”
Ewers’ throwing ability jumps out in almost any setting, but missing more than a week of preseason camp after he got here is an unexpected setback. Once Ewers announced his plans to arrive this season, I thought the idea of him taking the starting job by the middle of the season was entirely possible. But the fact that he will hit late August with only a few practices to his name dims those prospects.
Still, Ewers could catch up quickly once the season starts, though he also may just take this entire season to absorb the offense and try to take a run at the starting job next spring.
He’s not going anywhere, though. He arrived a year early to take advantage of endorsement opportunities, but Day doesn’t want to put him in a bad situation. Letting him grow in the shadows might be just what’s needed. But don’t forget about the talent here.
“We just saw somebody who really had a natural throwing ability,” Day said of offering Ewers a scholarship in eighth grade, “and has a great makeup and competitive spirit.”
At this rate, I’m a rare holdout on the idea of Ewers playing meaningful snaps this season. The safer bet is learning the offense, and then preparing for a ferocious battle for the job in 2022.
Kyle McCord, No. 28 recruit, Class of 2021
So who’s the backup? Day didn’t declare that Saturday, and that’s been Ohio State’s strategy for several years. There’s no need to announce that, and there’s no way to really find out unless the starter comes out of the game at a crucial moment. Even who gets in first in blowouts doesn’t really mean that much.
But the guess is that McCord would be No. 2 right now. For either McCord or Miller, the possibility of being one play away is a reason to stay. The way Day explained, the fact that McCord is a year younger than Stroud and Miller played into the battle, even though he arrived in January and took part in spring ball, and even though Miller and Stroud didn’t have normal freshman experiences during the 2020 pandemic season.
“Where he’s at right now, compared to some of the other freshmen we’ve had at quarterback since I’ve been here, he’s probably further along than those guys were at this point,” Day said.
That’s the kind of coach praise to keep a young QB encouraged — you’re further along than previous guys at your age.
”(Stroud and Miller) have a year up on him, but he’s kind of closed that gap,” Day said. “He’s made some really good decisions. He’s thrown the ball. He’s also learning. Again, this is Ohio State, so it’s very, very competitive, and the stakes are very, very high.
“I think he’s got a very bright future. And I think if he just continues to get better every day in practice, and learn from his mistakes and be resilient, then not too far into the season he’s going to be more game ready than he is right now. And that’s the goal.”
Realistically, it’s going to be almost impossible — actually, forget the almost — to keep Ewers and McCord both happy if they both remain healthy. The smoothest QB transition for the Buckeyes would be for Stroud to start in 2021 and 2022 and then go to the NFL, and for McCord or Ewers to take over for 2023. But that still only means one of them. It might be difficult for things to work out that smoothly.
It’s possible the most dramatic QB battle this season will be in practice between McCord and Ewers to emerge as the most likely challenger to Stroud next season. Both are too good to wait very long. When Day talks about reassessing in January, that sounds most specific to McCord. But Day also made clear the starting nod for Stroud was only for Game 1. Nothing is locked in. If Stroud struggles early as the starter, McCord would likely be the next QB up.
Jack Miller, No. 334 recruit, Class of 2020
Miller committed to the Buckeyes on July 1, 2018.
McCord committed on April 30, 2019.
Stroud committed on Dec 18, 2019.
Ewers committed on Nov. 19, 2020.
The QB room has jumped in stature around him, but Miller said at the start of camp he’s also become a better quarterback.
“I’ve gotten so much better since I’ve been here,” Miller said in early August. “It’s kind of hard not to get better, though, when you have such good receivers and such a good O-line. And the coaching is just so next level, it’s crazy.”
It’s that development that Day hopes will keep the QBs who aren’t starting in Columbus. Joe Burrow, who was a Buckeye for three seasons before taking part in a QB battle in the spring for 2018 and then transferring to LSU, is the transfer example the Buckeyes will use forever. The OSU coaches would just like their QBs to stick around for a bit before they might choose to try to start elsewhere if it’s not happening in Columbus.
Miller said the coaches have adjusted his throwing motion slightly, “maybe shortening it up a little bit, getting quicker, more twitchy,” Miller said.
But the real adjustment was the battle itself, with this many accomplished quarterbacks aiming for the same thing.
“Every day, there’s no room for error, to be honest,” Miller said. “You go out there, and you might mess up, and you’re coming off the field, and they’re putting the other guy in. So every single day, you’ve got to be on your game.”
Then you have to decide how you accept the outcome. Before the preseason started, Miller said Day reminded the quarterbacks about how to handle this competition.
“I think it’s definitely something that needs to be discussed and reminded of that you guys are all teammates,” Miller said. “There shouldn’t be any bad blood or any rivalries between the quarterbacks. … I think you definitely have to have a level of competitiveness on the field, for sure. But at the same time, I mean, that’s your teammate, and he is on your team and you’ve got to treat him like that.”
More Buckeyes coverage
Get the latest Ohio State Buckeyes merchandise: Here’s where you can order Ohio State football gear online, including jerseys, T-shirts, hoodies, hats and much more.