ATHENS — Justin Fields appears headed out of Georgia and on to Ohio State after weeks of talking with the Buckeyes about transferring.
Fields, a former 5-star recruit from Kennesaw, Ga., will have a quarterback battle in Columbus on his hands, but he won’t have to contend with a proven quarterback like he did at Georgia.
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit says Jake Fromm’s freshman season had everything to do with the amount of trust Georgia coaches placed in him and the challenge Fields had with the Bulldogs.
“You look at Trevor Lawrence and what happened at Clemson with Kelly Bryant,” Herbstreit said, referencing a situation that led Bryant to transfer after losing the starting job to FWAA Freshman Player of the Year candidate Trevor Lawrence.
“Dabo (Swinney) went into this season not quite as confident in Kelly Bryant and had a great deal of curiosity in the young quarterback (Lawrence) and gave him chances early and often, and the more chances he gave him, the better he played and the more he earned,” Herbstreit said.
“In Georgia’s case, there was a lot more confidence in what Jake Fromm did as a freshman — jus think about what he did: An SEC championship, outscored Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl and gave Georgia every reason to think they were going to knock off Alabama.
“If it wasn’t for that (overtime) pass from Tua (Tagovailoa), Jake Fromm wins the national championship as a freshman.”
Still, Fields felt confident enough to sign with Georgia and attempt to win the starting job away from Fromm.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart promised Fields a chance to compete, and the Georgia staff took that to the extent of splitting practice snaps and not naming a starting quarterback going into the season opener.
Fields played in 12 of 14 games this season with Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney looking to find ways to utilize his skills while not disrupting the offense.
Chaney said last Sunday the staff “did right” where the quarterback situation was concerned.
“It’s been tough, there’s no question about that,” Chaney said. “That position, there’s only one of them walking on the field, so you can feel that [tension] a little bit, that comes with it.
“When you have both at the quarterback spot you’re trying to utilize their skills the best you can to help your team win a football bowl and football games.”
Indeed, Georgia used Fields in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama even as Fromm was enjoying one of the best performances of his career, 25-of-39 passing for 301 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in the 35-28 loss to the Tide.
Fields, despite his great arm strength and running ability, didn’t have the same grasp on UGA’s pro-style offense as the much-more experienced Fromm.
Fields’ inexperience reading defenses and recognizing blitzes was obvious, and he often failed to get through his progressions, tucking and running when the first option was covered.
Fromm had many of the same issues when he was a true freshman in the first half of the 2017 season, but Georgia didn’t have any other option at that point, so he was able to play through it and learn on the go.
Fields didn’t have that same luxury.
ESPN analyst Marcus Spears said he felt the Bulldogs bent backwards too far trying to appease Fields with playing time.
“When you get into the mindset as a coach that I’ve got to coddle this guy to make sure he’s not going to leave, you start setting yourself up for disaster,” Spears said. “And I’m going to show you how it works on the field. (Against Alabama) when Justin Fields came in the play went for 1 yard, it was second-and-9 when Jake Fromm ran back on the field. And guess what they did, they went 0-for-6 in the second half on third downs.
“So when you look at how they tried to keep (Fields) involved, I think it hurt them at times during the season.”
Herbstreit had warned Georgia about that earlier in the season, suggesting that forcing Fields into the huddle at Fromm’s expense could damage the offensive continuity.
“You have to be incredibly careful and respectful of (Fromm) and how you will be using another quarterback,” Herbstreit said, “because that affects the continuity of your roster and the entire team.”
SEC legend Tim Tebow, himself once a backup his freshman season at Florida, suggested UGA use Fields in a package as Dan Mullen had once employed him with the Gators.
“Jake Fromm is your quarterback, there’s no arguments anymore, I don’t want to hear anything else,” Tebow said after Fromm led the Bulldogs to wins over Florida, Kentucky and Auburn in succession. “But how can Justin Fields help the team? Not in going in and being a quarterback for a series — but in special situations.
“Third-and-short, red zone and goal line, that’s where Justin Fields can help this team. So in those situations, get him that valuable experience early in the game.”
Fields and his family, however, wanted the opportunity to run the same offense as Fromm — a request that ultimately cost Fields playing opportunities.
Herbstreit said Fields’ mindset coming in needed to be different for the Georgia quarterback situation to work out under the circumstances.
“When you have Jake Fromm, you have to say ‘I’m good with sitting for the next two years and learning under Jake Fromm,’ “ Herbstreit said. “ So I was more surprised when he had all these other options that he went there to begin with.”
Fields said in the locker room after the SEC Championship Game that he came to Georgia to compete, and he felt like being with the Bulldogs this season was good for him.
“I feel like coming here kind of I could have probably went some other places, but I feel like coming here has definitely made me a better QB,” Fields said after the 35-28 loss to Alabama on Dec. 1. “I feel like coming here like I didn’t want it to be handed to me like some other schools would have had. So I came here, and I’m just going to keep working.
“I’m motivated because I mean I’m a competitor. I want to be out on the field. I know there are places in my game where I need to get better at. I’m just going to keep getting better and keep improving.”
Fields, apparently, has decided that the place to get better and keep improving is in the Big Ten at Ohio State.
Fields was not available in the Georgia locker room following the Sugar Bowl, and he has not spoken to media since the SEC Championship Game — his only media opportunity of the 2018 season.
Smart, even as it became apparent that Fields was talking to other programs during bowl practices, continued to support Fields.
“I can’t be annoyed, the kid is doing what he thinks is best for him,” Smart said. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do (to convince him to stay).
“We’ve been very open and honest that we would like him to stay. He’s worked really hard. He competed his tail off throughout the year and played a team role throughout the year.”
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