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No. 4 Ohio State: Maybe it's the start of the C.J. Stroud era for the Buckeyes, maybe not

Joey Kaufman
Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud talks to Buckeyes quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis during the team's spring game in April. With Justin Fields now in the NFL, Stroud is considered the front-runner for the Buckeyes' starting job.

INDIANAPOLIS  — A year ago, Ryan Day just knew.

The Ohio State coach knew he had a special team, potentially a "once-in-a-lifetime" one, as he put it. That's in part why he was so frustrated when it looked like the Buckeyes wouldn't have a season and why he fought for one.

Training camp for the 2021 season opens Aug. 3. Though the Buckeyes are the favorites to win the Big Ten for the fifth straight year, Day said it's too early to know if this year's team has the potential of last year's. Ohio State reached the College Football Playoff championship game, losing to Alabama 52-24.

"I think that we have a chance to be pretty good," Day said last Friday at Big Ten media days. "Do I know really right now where we're at? There are still a lot of unknowns because a lot of young guys haven't played a lot of football. So I can't sit here and tell you that.

"I think I have a feeling on where we're at in certain areas. I think that we have really talented position groups. But several of those just haven't played a lot so it's hard to say. But I'm hoping somewhere around midseason we've got a better idea of that. If it is what we think it is, then we've got something special."

No quarterback on the Ohio State roster has ever thrown a college pass. Quarterbacks Jack Miller, center, and C.J. Stroud, left, are a couple of redshirt freshmen hoping to earn the starting job in August.

The Buckeyes are strong at several position groups. The wide receivers, offensive line and defensive line are deep and talented. But the linebackers are new, and the secondary has much to prove.

The biggest question, of course, is at quarterback.

Day's optimism last year was largely based on having Justin Fields returning at the position. C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller and Kyle McCord are competing to succeed him. Stroud and Miller are redshirt freshmen. McCord enrolled in January.

Ideally, Day said, he'd like to be able to name a starter after two weeks of camp so that player could get most of the practice reps before the opener at Minnesota on Sept. 2.

Stroud is widely perceived to be the front-runner, but Day said that's not the case. "It's even to me," he said.

The quarterbacks have been working with strength coach Mickey Marotti and his staff, and Day is encouraged by their progress.

"Their bodies look like they've changed," he said. "They've gotten stronger. They've gotten faster. We'll have a better idea once we get on the field and start practicing."

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has big shoes to fill left by former Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears. Day will have to choose from a couple of inexperienced quarterbacks.

Day said he is looking for consistency, knowledge of the offense, and hunger.

"If you can outwork me, or outwork your (position) coach, and you ask a question about a piece of film that maybe I didn't see or something like that, that would knock my socks off," he said.

In addition to the three freshmen, the Buckeyes have a commitment from Southlake Carroll's Quinn Ewers, the top overall prospect in the 2022 recruiting class.

If Stroud or Miller wins the job, they'd be eligible to enter the NFL draft after next season. If McCord, on the other hand, is named the starter, he wouldn't be draft-eligible until 2024. Assuming he wins and retains the job, would Ewers be content to be a backup for two years instead of one?

Day insisted that wouldn't be a factor in his decision.

"We're going to play the best player," he said.

Southlake Carroll quarterback Quinn Ewers is the No. 1 overall recruit in the country for the 2022 class. The one-time Texas pledge is now committed to Ohio State.

Day said he has learned that long-term planning usually doesn't go as anticipated, especially in an era when transfers are instantly eligible. He didn't expect to lose Dwayne Haskins after one season as starter. That prompted him to pursue Fields from the transfer portal.

"I don't know if it's going to be as easy as just saying, 'OK, here's the starting quarterback, and he's our guy for three years,'" Day said. "I'd like to think that's going to be the case. But my experience tells me that's not going to be the case."

Day was candid in acknowledging that he's concerned about the uncertainty at quarterback, both for this season and beyond.

"I don't know what this is going to look like moving forward," he said. "If I did, I'd probably sleep a little better right now. But I don't know.

"I know that we want to have that room be around for two, three, four years so that we can have experience as we head into December and January, because that's one of the things we haven't had," Day continued. "We've had really good quarterback play in Dwayne and Justin, but not a lot of experience where it's a third-year starter. We had that with J.T. (Barrett), and that was great. We're trying to get that again."

The Buckeyes players at media days were more outwardly confident than their coach about the quarterback situation. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert and left tackle Thayer Munford said they've been impressed with all three.

"They're all new. They're all learning," Ruckert said. "They're young, but they're super, super-talented and they're coming along so well."

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say

No. 16 Miami: Manny Diaz seems intent on building Hurricanes from local talent

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks' program is now  reaching recruiting, NFL draft high marks

No. 14 LSU: Questions that Tigers have taken with them this summer

No. 13 Indiana: Texas A&M transfer Camron Buckley gives Hoosiers another weapon

No. 12 USC: All signs are pointing up for Trojans, making it sunny again in California

No. 11 Florida: Gators have holes to fill, but already sounding confident

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels' Sam Howell managing the hype, expectations

No. 9 Notre Dame: All-American safety Hamilton could help Irish on offense, too

No. 8 Cincinnati: Fickel, Ridder have taken Bearcats' program to new heights

No. 7 Iowa State: Breece Hall stays close to roots as Heisman talk builds

No. 6 Texas A&M: Aggies rebuild their line around All-American Kenyon Green

No. 5 Georgia: Bulldogs eager to see what LSU transfer Arik Gilbert can do