KYLE MCCORD CAME to Beaver Stadium to be impressed.
A sophomore quarterback at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, McCord was among a group of coveted recruits Penn State hosted on Sept. 30, 2018. A White Out crowd of 110,889 filled the stands as the No. 9 Nittany Lions took on No. 4 Ohio State. That week, PSU coach James Franklin recalled former tight end Jesse James once telling him, “If you come to the White Out, you’re committing.”
And McCord did leave State College impressed that night — but with the other team.
“What they did with Dwayne [Haskins], I really liked, and seeing that in person was really eye-opening,” McCord said. “That’s when I started to fall in love with Coach [Ryan] Day’s offense.”
Haskins rallied Ohio State from a 26-14 fourth-quarter deficit with two touchdown passes and the Buckeyes won 27-26. He went on to one of the greatest quarterback seasons in Big Ten history: 4,831 pass yards, a 70% completion percentage, 50 touchdowns, eight interceptions.
On April 25, 2019, Washington selected Haskins with the 15th overall pick in the NFL draft. Five days later, McCord committed to play for Day and the Buckeyes.
“I really never thought I would end up at a school like Ohio State just because their offense was geared more toward a dual-threat quarterback, and that really wasn’t my style,” said McCord, whom ESPN rates as the No. 29 overall player in the 2021 class. “Once Coach Day took over and seeing what he did with Dwayne, I really saw myself there. They run an NFL style of offense. The reads that the quarterbacks have to go through are some of the same reads you see guys making on Sundays.”
Day’s tenure at Ohio State includes the usual markers of success: wins against Michigan, Big Ten championships, major bowl victories and a College Football Playoff appearance. But Day, in his second season as head coach and his fourth overall with the program, is helping the Buckeyes reverse arguably their most befuddling trend: the inability to produce first-round NFL draft picks at quarterback.
When Haskins was drafted in 2019, he became the first Buckeyes quarterback taken in the first round since 1982, when Art Schlichter went No. 4 overall to the Baltimore Colts. After helping Haskins, Day now mentors quarterback Justin Fields, who is expected to be one of the first names called in the 2021 NFL draft. Fields is currently ranked No. 3 overall on Mel Kiper’s Big Board and No. 6 on Todd McShay’s list of top draft prospects, and will lead the Buckeyes back into Happy Valley this Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC and the ESPN App).
After having zero quarterbacks drafted in the first rounds between 1983 and 2018, Ohio State should have back-to-back starters go in the first round.
“I didn’t know that,” Urban Meyer, Ohio State’s coach from 2012 to 2018, said about the program’s lack of first-round quarterback draftees. “So none of those kids under [Jim] Tressel? Or Troy Smith? Wow, really? Then you’re going to have back-to-back. It’s a heck of a deal.”
Ohio State’s overall draft history is well decorated. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Buckeyes rank third all time in total selections with 459, trailing only USC (501) and Notre Dame (498). Ohio State edges USC for most first-round draft picks (84-81).
Between Schlichter and Haskins, Ohio State produced 48 first-round picks: 14 defensive backs, eight defensive linemen, seven offensive linemen, seven wide receivers, six linebackers, five running backs and a tight end.
Eighty-one quarterbacks went in the first round during that time span. None were from Ohio State. The Buckeyes didn’t even have a second-round pick at quarterback.
The drought in first-round quarterbacks infiltrated the entire Big Ten, which produced none between Penn State’s Kerry Collins in 1995 and Haskins. Teams passed on players like Michigan’s Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000), Purdue’s Drew Brees (second round, 2001) and Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson (third round, 2012).
While Ohio State had nine quarterbacks drafted between Schlichter and Haskins, none went higher than No. 68 overall (Tom Tupa in 1988).
“I took it as a personal challenge to have that quarterback room be in the Heisman [Trophy] conversation year in and year out,” Day said. “We’ve had a lot of those here at Ohio State, but certainly a challenge to get guys drafted in the first round. That’s something Ohio State has a great history of at all positions, and now the last couple years, we’ve had some really good quarterbacks here.”
MAYBE NONE of this happens without Tristen Wallace, who never played a down for the Buckeyes.
When Wallace, a dual-threat quarterback who fit Meyer’s offense, flipped his commitment from Ohio State to Oregon in December 2015, the Buckeyes needed to quickly fill the spot.
Haskins, then committed to Maryland, had attended Ohio State’s camp and impressed. “The most polished high school quarterback I had seen,” Meyer said. Haskins wanted to be a Buckeye, but he wasn’t a natural runner like then-starter J.T. Barrett, predecessor Braxton Miller or other quarterbacks in the program, including a young Joe Burrow.
“We said, ‘Let’s go after Dwayne,'” said Mark Pantoni, Ohio State’s player personnel chief since 2012. “We knew he could be a talented quarterback, even though he may not fit exactly what we want. Dwayne was the first non-runner that we had.”
Haskins committed in January 2016.
A year later, following a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the CFP semifinal and with the pass game lagging, Meyer reshaped the offensive staff. He hired coordinator Kevin Wilson, previously Indiana’s head coach, and Day, a little-known NFL assistant assigned to the quarterbacks.
In 2017, Day helped Barrett to his best passing season. He hit career highs for yards (3,053), completions (240) and touchdowns (35). Then, Haskins stepped in. His skill set required Ohio State to down-pedal the quarterback run, a staple of Meyer’s system, and emphasize the pass like never before. In 2018, Ohio State set Big Ten single-season records for passing yards (5,100), passing yards per game (373), touchdown passes (51) and completions (396).
Day and Wilson had similar backgrounds in the shotgun run game, using spread-based ideas from Chip Kelly, Rich Rodriguez and others. Wilson absorbed Air Raid pass principles from his time at Oklahoma, where he helped quarterback Sam Bradford go No. 1 overall in the 2010 NFL draft. Day, who played quarterback at New Hampshire, spent 13 years as a college assistant before joining Kelly in the NFL, where he evolved his passing philosophy to incorporate more mesh concepts — shallow crossing routes designed to match speedy receivers against slower defenders.
“We’re a spread college run game with an NFL-type passing game,” Wilson said. “That’s the sell to the quarterbacks. Like last year, we have a 2,000-yard running back and we have a quarterback who throws 40 some touchdown passes. You used to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw the ball a lot.’ Maybe now you can validate and prove it with those numbers.”
“The focus on the quarterback at Ohio State has probably been stronger than in the last three years than any three consecutive years that I can remember, really.”
Ohio State historian Jack Park
The pivot to passing under Day and Wilson is clear. In 2016, the year before they arrived, Barrett led Ohio State in rushing attempts with 205. His total dropped to 165 in 2017, and Haskins had only 79 attempts in 2018.
Although Fields is a more gifted runner than Haskins, he had only 135 rushes last fall.
“Ryan designs less for the quarterback to run than Urban might have,” said Tressel, Ohio State’s head coach from 2001 to 2010. “Urban liked the quarterback run and had a lot of success doing it. There’s a lot of ways to get it done, but when you’ve got a guy who can throw it like Fields can or Burrow or Haskins, you’d just as soon they’d throw it rather than run it.”
Haskins’ success in 2018 changed the view of Ohio State’s quarterback position. “That’s when quarterbacks, they were almost calling us,” Meyer said. Pantoni noticed that quarterback prospects and their parents became less concerned about the injury risk Ohio State’s offense posed.
Day’s impact translated to recruiting, as Ohio State added C.J. Stroud, ESPN’s No. 2 pocket passer in the 2020 class, and Jack Miller, ESPN’s No. 16 pocket passer.
“With Ryan, it seemed like the guys who were more pure passers were the guys he favored,” Pantoni said. “We could tell pretty quickly.”
The most important eyes watching Haskins belonged to a quarterback Ohio State didn’t secure through recruiting. Fields was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2018 when he signed with Georgia. But after a frustrating freshman season, Fields chose to transfer and picked Ohio State.
In his first news conference as a Buckeye, Fields explained his decision, saying of Day, “He knows what it takes to get quarterbacks to the NFL.”
“We got Justin in the transfer,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if that would have happened if Dwayne wouldn’t have been here.”
Justin Fields tosses a pair of touchdowns and adds another on the ground as Ohio State cruises by Nebraska.
Last fall, Fields became the first quarterback in Big Ten history to record 40 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in a season. His 41-3 touchdown-interception ratio led the FBS, and he ranked third nationally in passer rating (181.43). Fields also ranked third on the team with 484 rush yards.
“He’s really developed as a thrower,” Meyer said. “Ryan’s saying he’s going to be a top, top pick. I call him Braxton Miller with an arm like Dwayne Haskins.”
Another season for Fields with Day and Wilson, who collaborate on playcalling, will allow the quarterback to “learn the whys” of the offense, Day said, before moving on to the NFL.
“Coach Day’s the best quarterback coach in the country,” Fields said. “Having Coach Day’s experience in the NFL, he knows what they’re looking for and how that system works.”
MANY ARE SURPRISED to learn about Ohio State’s 37-year gap between first-round quarterback draftees. There’s less surprise that before Schlichter, Ohio State never had a quarterback drafted before the seventh round.
In 1955, Frank Ellwood led Ohio State with 60 passing yards … for the season. The following year, Don Clark topped the team’s passing chart with 88 yards. Ohio State produced only one 1,500-yard passer before Schlichter recorded the three highest passing totals in team history, beginning in 1979.
“I don’t think Ohio State was ever looked upon too much as a real strong quarterback school,” Ohio State historian Jack Park said. “Good quarterbacks who could certainly manage the game, but as far as passing talent overall, physical talent, I don’t think Ohio State ever had that reputation.”
Woody Hayes, who coached Ohio State from 1951 to 1978, openly scorned passing and used most quarterbacks as runners. Even after Hayes, Ohio State’s offensive approach remained rooted in the ground game.
“A lot of traditional I-formation with a featured running back and the big O-line and the play-action pass off of that,” Wilson said. “Sometimes the offense they managed didn’t lead to the splash, maybe, didn’t attract the high-end quarterbacks.”
Beginning with Schlichter, Ohio State’s passing production increased. The team had 2,000-yard passers five times between 1985 and 1990. In 1995 and 1997, Bob Hoying and Joe Germaine recorded the first 3,000-yard passing seasons in team history.
But Ohio State wouldn’t reach that mark again until Barrett in 2017.
“Even when I was in school, it was a run-oriented offense,” said Stanley Jackson, a Buckeyes quarterback from 1994 to 1997. “It was all predicated around the run game, and so the development of the quarterback was warped somewhat. You look at a school like Purdue, the only thing they could do to compete with Ohio State was throw the football. Their quarterbacks were developing at a much better rate.
“The system you run matters. We didn’t run an NFL-friendly system.”
Jackson saw a shift when Ohio State hired Walt Harris, who had been the New York Jets’ quarterbacks coach, to coach quarterbacks in 1995. Harris worked with Hoying, a third-round draft pick in 1996, and also Jackson and Germaine, a fourth-round pick in 1999.
Harris spent only two seasons in Columbus, but Jackson thinks his impact was similar to Day’s.
“The key is having a coach who understands what it takes to be a signal-caller at the next level, and I think they have that in Ryan Day,” Jackson said. “I don’t think that was the case 10 or 15 years ago, even seven years.”
Tressel won a national title in 2002 with Craig Krenzel, who went in the fifth round of the 2004 NFL draft. Troy Smith won the Heisman in 2006 and led undefeated Ohio State to the national title game. But at barely 6 feet, Smith didn’t project as an NFL star and went in the fifth round of the 2007 draft.
Ohio State scored a recruiting breakthrough in 2008 when it landed Terrelle Pryor, the nation’s top quarterback prospect and a top-five overall recruit. He started for three seasons before withdrawing from school in June 2011 and becoming the first pick in the NFL’s supplemental draft later that summer. Pryor saw significant action as a pro quarterback in only one season before moving to wide receiver. Tressel also recruited Cardale Jones, the hero of Ohio State’s 2014 national title run, who he felt had strong NFL potential. Jones was a fourth-round pick in 2016.
“You’re hoping that you’re recruiting a first-rounder, that’s the goal,” Tressel said. “We felt maybe when Terrelle Pryor was recruited, that was a first-round kind of guy. … Being drafted in the NFL and winning college games isn’t always the same. Sometimes it can be. I always tell people that we played in nine national championship games in my career, and we had eight different quarterbacks. And so it really wasn’t about who the quarterback was.”
If and when Ohio State reaches national title games under Day, the quarterback will be the biggest reason.
“The focus on the quarterback at Ohio State has probably been stronger in the last three years than any three consecutive years that I can remember, really,” Park said. “It’s really evolved that way, and with the recruiting that Ryan Day’s done, I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues.”
Good fortune factored into Ohio State landing both Haskins and Fields. What if Wallace never flips to Oregon, or if Fields stays at Georgia? Then again, Ohio State still had Burrow, who went on to win the Heisman and a national title at LSU, before going No. 1 overall in April’s NFL draft.
Moving forward, Ohio State won’t need much luck to be a factor in the quarterback recruiting scene.
“The top kids start calling you instead of you having to reach out to them first,” Pantoni said. “It makes life much easier, they’re excited. We feel especially at that position, being the Cadillac position now in this offense, it doesn’t really matter where a kid’s from. We feel like no matter where they are in the country, we can take a shot at them and have a very good chance of getting them, where other positions you may not even try to go down South and try to beat the SEC on some skill guys, just because it’s going to be a hard get.”
Tressel said he and Day have spoken about how “really there’s no one in the country you can’t get in on” at Ohio State. Day’s first few quarterback recruits have come from California (Stroud), Arizona (Miller) and Pennsylvania (McCord).
Brent Barnes, who coached Miller at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, follows national quarterback recruiting closely and has seen how programs like Oklahoma benefit from producing high draft picks. He sees a similar “evolution” at Ohio State, saying, “They’re in a sweet spot right now of people absolutely believing that’s a great quarterback school.”
The key will be whether Day can land players like Fields out of high school, rather than through the transfer portal. McCord, who committed before his junior season despite a huge offer list, said the decision came down to playing for a coach who he thinks could lead an NFL team someday.
“There’s not too many schools outside of maybe Oklahoma who can say they’ve produced high-end quarterbacks year in and year out,” McCord said. “That’s certainly become a tradition at Ohio State.”
Added Jackson: “We’ve always been able to say we’re Linebacker U, we’re DBU, we’ve put great offensive linemen in the NFL, great defensive linemen. The quarterback position has been lacking. Now with the change because of Ryan Day, you’ll see more kids migrating. It’s happening already.”
The Buckeyes don’t have a quarterback committed for the 2022 class, but there’s no rush to add one. By late spring, Ohio State likely will boast another first-round pick.
For a program that has dominated the Big Ten in every other way, an enhanced quarterback profile provides yet another edge.
“That gives you automatic credibility in the recruiting world,” Meyer said. “Defensive line, same thing, when you get first-rounders, like we had [Joey] Bosa, [Nick] Bosa, Chase Young. Who’s not going to listen to you? Same thing’s happening at quarterback now.
“Once you get one first-rounder, then another one, that just changes the whole mindset.”