ATHENS — Justin Fields is leaving Georgia. And that might not be an altogether bad thing.
Nobody who has direct knowledge of that would confirm or deny the news, first reported by USA Today on Monday. That includes Fields, members of his family, coach Kirby Smart or UGA, which sent word to beat reporters late Monday night that nobody associated with the institution would be commenting on the whole ordeal.
But all indications are that Fields’ departure is imminent. If so, Georgia will be down a 5-star quarterback for the second straight year.
Obviously, that’s a blow to Georgia’s depth at quarterback. As has been the case all season for the Bulldogs, they were one Jake Fromm concussion or twisted ankle from having to depend on an inexperienced true freshman. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they never had to do that this past season. As Fields proved time and again, he was not yet ready for prime time.
Fields never settled into a defined role with the Bulldogs. Once Georgia got into the meat of its SEC schedule, it became clear the coaches weren’t comfortable with handing Fields the full play script, or even a complete series. He came in for a down here and there to run a specific, rehearsed play. But then he’d be shuttled back out again, and Fromm would come right back in.
Added together, Fields did some good work. He played in 12 of the Bulldogs’ 13 games, had 266 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns on 42 attempts (6.3 ypg) and completed 69 percent of 39 passes for 328 yards and four more scores. Georgia ran the football on more than 70 percent of the snaps when Fields was in the game.
But Fields could never run down Fromm, who did nothing but get better all season. The sophomore’s best game of his career was the last of the season. Against No. 1-ranked Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, Fromm was 25-of-39 passing for 301 yards and 3 TDs with no interceptions. His 2,537 passing yards on the season, together with a 68.4 completion percentage, 27 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions, gave Fromm a 175.81 pass efficiency rating on the year. That’s third in the nation behind Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Bama’s Tua Tagvailoa, the Heisman Trophy winner and runner-up.
Fields was the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect when he signed with Georgia out of Harrison High and he came in with the intention of unseating Fromm. But Fromm simply outplayed Fields, the same way he did 5-star quarterback in Jacob Eason last year.
Fields admitted as much after the SEC championship game, but indicated then he intended to stick around to continue the competition.
“Jake played great this year,” Fields said. “I could have probably went some other places, but I definitely feel like coming here has definitely made me a better quarterback. I didn’t want it to be handed to me like it some other schools would have. So I came here, and I’m just going to keep working.”
What changed in Fields’ mind between then and now is unclear. The likelihood that he’d remain Fromm’s backup certainly was central to his decision.
There remains a unlikely scenario where this could work out for UGA. It would involve Fields redshirting while playing only four games next season, then succeeding Fromm as a starter when Fromm leaves UGA after his junior season. But that would be based on a lot of uncertainties. First and foremost, Fromm’s stock as an NFL prospect — much less a early-draft entrant — is a heavily debated topic at this point.
Meanwhile, Fields is obviously angling for immediate eligibility upon transfer. That would require an NCAA appeal, of course. But Fields comes from a family of legal eagles, and the groundwork for a Title IX complaint based on racial discrimination was planted by his camp in the USA Today story on Fields’ impending transfer. Dan Wolken cited a DawgNation report that Fields was “the subject of racially bigoted comments made by a Georgia baseball player during a Sept. 29 win against Tennessee, which led to that player’s dismissal from the program after an internal investigation.”
That might seem flimsy since Fields heard about the remarks only after the fact when students reported them to UGA’s administration. But the NCAA has been approving more appeals in an effort to repair its image as an exploiter of student-athlete labor.
Regardless of how all that shakes out, Fields’ timing puts the Bulldogs in a bind. Recruiting-wise, they have only one quarterback commitment in the 2018 class in 4-star prospect John Rhys Plumlee of Hattiesburg, Miss., and Ole Miss is working non-stop to flip him at this point. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs continue to pursue 3-star prospect Dillon Gabriel of Mililani, Hawaii. He reportedly will choose between Georgia, Southern Cal and UCF on Wednesday when the early signing period commences.
Regardless, Georgia probably will have to sign two quarterbacks in this class no matter what. In the meantime, the Bulldogs will have to depend on walkons Matthew Downing (freshman), Mason Wood (freshman) and John Seter (redshirt freshman) to provide depth at the position.
As long as Jake Fromm remains healthy, the Bulldogs have their quarterback of the present. Fields was set as the quarterback of the future. When he leaves, the future is clouded for both him and Georgia.
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