ATHENS – I was surprised Justin Fields came to Georgia.
That thought first occurred to me in the fall of 2017. I’d seen all the fuss building about this dynamic young quarterback at Harrison High. He didn’t really come onto my radar screen until he’d committed to Penn State back in December of 2016. But as time passed, I started hearing more and more from those in the recruiting community – our own Jeff Sentell among them – that this kid was even better than Cartersville’s Trevor Lawrence and that Georgia was still in it for him.
Having not kept up with it like all those guys, that assessment really shocked me. I’d seen and heard a lot about Lawrence, even watched him play on TV a couple times. But not Fields. So, on Georgia’s off weekend before the Florida game in October of 2017 I went to see Fields play.
It was a region game against Dalton and I’d underestimated the fuss that there was about this young man. I hadn’t requested a credential – that’s usually not a requirement to high school games – but I got there very early, so I was able to talk my way into the parking lot and then again into the game.
Inside, I finally got a look at Fields in pregame warmups. It was clear right away what all the fuss was about. Fields was so much bigger than everybody else on the field, his own teammates especially. Physically, he looked like a tight end.
Until the passing drills began.
The ball zipped effortlessly out of Fields big right hand and sailed in tight spirals to his small-statured receivers. He threw to them on progressively deeper routes, the last of them ending with the ball traveling close to 50 yards in the air. The throws weren’t always on the money, but the flight of the ball was always impressive.
When the game started, I kept wondering when I’d see that arm on display. He did throw the ball, but mostly on quick hitches, slants and screens. He did hook up once with a wideout on a deep post for a TD.
But mostly Fields ran the ball. A lot.
That was the night that Georgia coach Kirby Smart flew in on his rented helicopter. I was standing just a few feet to the left of Smart and assistant coach Dell McGee when Fields came barreling toward our sideline. Right next to Smart, Fields landed on the ground out of bounds and did not get up.
He’d broken the index finger on his right hand and subsequently was determined to be out for the year. Harrison held on for a 28-26 win. Fields finished with 207 yards rushing and a touchdown and 185 yards passing and another score.
I came away impressed but not blown away. As the broken finger underscored, trying to run the football like that against SEC defenses would be hazardous to his health. If he’d be able to throw against them I left Kennesaw not knowing.
Two months later, Fields committed to Georgia and two weeks after that he entered UGA as an early enrollee. That’s when I knew for sure that Smart was other-worldly when it came to recruiting. That notion was validated a short time later with the Bulldogs’ distinction as the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class.
That was before Jacob Eason left Georgia to transfer to the University of Washington. So, for a moment anyway, the Bulldogs had three 5-star quarterbacks on their roster who carried a 5-star recruiting rating (Jake Fromm had one such distinction, but wasn’t a consensus).
Until Friday’s news that Fields had finalized his transfer plans to Ohio State, Georgia’s numbers of former 5-star prospects on the roster had swelled to 28. If the recruiting had gone just a little different in the early signing period, there was a possibility of it reaching 30.
That’s more than any team in the country, Alabama included.
You’ll note that only 22 players can be on the field at any one time, offense and defense. So that means that a lot of 5-stars aren’t on the field for Georgia. And that’s the rub when it comes to recruiting.
Roster management can be a bear. It’s one thing to have 5-stars that are having to wait their turn on the offensive line or in the defensive backfield, but it’s another thing altogether at quarterback. So, like Eason a year before him, Fields has packed up his bag of footballs and left. He’s bound for Ohio State.
Interestingly, the Buckeyes weren’t even among Fields’ primary suitors during his initial recruitment. But it appears a pretty good landing place for him now.
It’s certainly not a bad turn for Georgia. From a competitive standpoint, it’s better that Fields landed at a Big Ten school than another SEC school. I always thought he would’ve been a nice fit for what Dan Mullen does at Florida, but imagine the friction his presence there would’ve created.
As I’ve written before, I think Fields leaving might be the best thing for Georgia. His presence had become an increasingly divisive force within the fan base and it appeared to be working its way into the locker room.
Yes, it leaves the Bulldogs in a precarious place as far as depth. An injury to Fromm could leave Georgia in a real bind. But the addition of Stetson Bennett as a transfer smooths that over considerably, because he can definitely come in and run Georgia’s stuff.
Meanwhile, freshman signee Dwan Mathis of Detroit brings to Athens some attributes similar to Fields. Don’t mistake him for a running quarterback or even a dual-threat. But the 6-foot-6 Mathis is big and mobile and has decent arm. And he certainly won’t be dragging the heavy weight of immediate expectations.
To be clear, Fields came to Athens with the intention of beating out Fromm and taking over as Georgia’s quarterback in his first year. He was unable to do that and that’s why he went elsewhere. Mathis already has stated his intention is to learn from Fromm and follow his lead. That sounds like a better approach all the way around.
As for Fields’ decision to leave, this is the new world we live in with college quarterbacks. They’re not going to wait around for their turn the way D.J. Shockley did at Georgia behind David Greene from 2002-2005. Expect the quarterback carousel to turn every January around the country.
All indications are that the groundwork has been laid for Fields to attain immediate eligibility at Ohio State, and whether that’s truly justified is another whole story. If so, it’d only be fitting that Georgia and the Buckeyes might meet in the playoffs. That way the Fromm vs. Fields argument could be settled on the field once and for all.
Or at least for a day.