ATHENS — The tale of Justin Fields at Georgia has been told many times, and it will no doubt come up again during the College Football Playoff Championship Game telecast of Alabama vs. Ohio State on Monday night.
The story always ends up the same way, with Fields transferring to Ohio State and Bulldogs fans lamenting him leaving the program before he could realize his talents in red and black.
Another twist to the story was recently revealed after Coach Kirby Smart was asked on a recent podcast if Fields should have stayed at Georgia.
“That’s a great question,” Smart said, knowing better than anyone that Fields’ decision to leave UGA remains one of the most polarizing moments in recent Georgia sports history.
The Fields that people see now is not the same player who came to Athens as a true freshman, of course, now three years older, wiser, stronger and better.
Indeed, and many don’t know or have forgotten that Jake Fromm led UGA to the brink of a national championship the season before Fields arrived.
Fromm had the benefit of a full season of experience and success running the multi-faceted Pro-Style offense after assuming the job when incumbent Jacob Eason was injured in the 2017 season-opening game.
So while Fields was the most talented quarterback at Georgia 2018, he was not yet the best quarterback on the team, and so he did not win the starting job.
Smart champions Fields
Smart never did give up on keeping Fields, despite the false narrative spread that Georgia merely let him go.
Smart has so much respect for Fields that he allowed him to attend a closed scrimmage last August before Ohio State resumed its football season. It created a dash of consternation among some UGA donors not allowed to attend as well as some players’ families at the time.
By the time the season kicked off, the Bulldogs had enough other quarterback drama that Fields’ practice attendance was a distant memory.
“(Fields) is a great kid, his sister plays softball here, he’s a very bight, well-rounded kid,” Smart said on a recent ‘All things Covered’ podcast hosted by his friend, Bryant McFadden. “So many players on the team really loved him.”
The fans and media were high on Fields, too, and the expectations followed him to Georgia.
“With the new recruiting age that we live in, and the hype that follows the No. 1 premier player, he and Trevor (Lawrence) were really the top two players coming out in the country,” Smart said. “and (they) happened to be 30 miles from each other, and a lot of comparisons happened with Justin to Trevor.”
Smart revealed for the first time that Fields felt added pressure to get on the field early because of the success Lawrence was having his true freshman season at Clemson.
“It was very evident to us early on in the year that as Trevor had success, and began to play, and in the Texas A&M game (second of the season) he got in and played more and more, Justin felt the same way that, ‘Hey, I’m as good as him, and I should get an opportunity to play,’ ” Smart said.
“And at the time, we had Jake Fromm, who was playing pretty well.”
Lawrence had earned the starting job at Clemson by the fifth game of the season, while Fields saw action in 12 of 14 games as a backup.
Flashback to Jake Fromm
Fromm was fourth in the nation in passing efficiency through the first six games of the 2018 season, completing 72 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
Georgia was ranked No. 2 in the nation and appeared headed back for another shot at the national championship. The Bulldogs were averaging 485 yards per game and 42.1 points per outing despite running out the clock in the fourth quarter of blowout wins.
How could Smart or any coach have made a quarterback change at that time?
But then came a 36-16 loss to an emerging star at LSU named Joe Burrow in Game 7.
Many wondered if a change could be brewing during the ensuing bye week leading up to the all-important game in Florida against the Gators.
But others, like Kirk Herbstreit and Tim Tebow, did not.
Fromm responded with a 36-17 win over the Gators, 17-of-24 passing for 240 yards, 3 touchdowns and no turnovers.
Georgia lost the SEC Championship Game to Alabama that season, 35-28, but Fromm was 25-of-39 passing for 301 yards with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions against the Tide.
“(Fromm) was playing good football, and went toe-to-toe with Alabama in the SEC Championship game, and we didn’t play real well defensively,” Smart said. “But Jake did a lot of good things. It was really a tough situation to manage because Justin is extremely talented.”
The infamous fake
Fields was so talented that Smart worked on a fake punt play all year designed for the Alabama punt return team. Fields would run it out of a formation that Georgia had never before revealed.
The Bulldogs practiced it over, and over, and over again for the precise situation they found themselves late in the game against Alabama.
Fourth-and-11 at the 50-yard line, game tied 28-28, 3 1/2 minutes left to play.
Fields was late on the snap, and then quick to give up on the throw, scrambling for a 2-yard gain on the change of possession.
“Thought it was there, and it was there today,” Smart said at the time. “We were going to snap the ball quick. We took too long to snap the ball. They didn’t have a guy covered. We had a guy wide open. We took so long to snap it, that they recognized it and got the guy covered late.”
Indeed, long snapper Nick Moore shared that the play had been worked on specifically for the Tide.
“We’d been practicing that play for two years,” Moore said. “It was designed for Alabama’s punt safe.”
Some still question the call, but those who watch the replay see receiver Mecole Hardman running open, and recognize the bigger issue was the execution.
Fields said at the CFP Media Day this week he doesn’t remember much.
“All I remember is that I went out on the punt, everybody was yelling my name and the punt didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Fields said. “That’s the only memory that I have from that one play.”
Fields’ transfer to Ohio State
Fields was so talented that Smart brought him with the team to the Sugar Bowl, even though Fields announced he was entering the transfer portal before the team left Athens for New Orleans.
ESPN analyst Chris Fowler said at the time that Fields’ transfer technique out of Athens could be a game-changer in college football.
Many felt that Georgia bringing Fields divided the locker room. As Smart noted, Fields was and is immensely popular with all of his Bulldogs’ teammates.
UGA players, still upset at being snubbed by the College Football Playoff Committee, fell flat in a 28-21 loss to Texas.
In addition to Fields’ transfer being a distraction, first-round NFL draft pick Deandre Baker also came on the trip, even though he informed the staff he did not want to play as to not risk injury.
Further, it proved to be the final game coached by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who would sign a deal worth almost twice as much at Tennessee.
It wasn’t a stretch to say the Sugar Bowl was not Georgia’s best game plan.
Smart has since changed his policy, not bringing players to bowl games who opt-out or on the verge of transferring.
Meanwhile, there’s ample evidence that the era of quarterback transfers has arrived. The past three signal callers to win the Heisman Trophy — Burrow, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield — were all transfer quarterbacks.
Georgia’s loss was Ohio State’s gain, and as the UGA offense struggled in 2019, Fields’ career took off with the Buckeyes.
“You can’t say it (transfer) hasn’t benefited him, because he got to go to a really good program, and he got to play right away, and he’s played a lot more football because he chose to go there,” Smart said. “So you can’t say that it was wrong or right. But I would say what you said earlier, the accountability factor and guys sticking it out, sometimes it pays off to do that. Especially at other positions.”
Smart could have used some retention at the receiver position after the 2018 season, for sure.
Many of the national critics who took aim at Smart for not finding a way to keep Fields did not bother to mention the two key reasons UGA’s pass game fell off in 2019:
• Five of the top six pass catchers from the 2018 team were no longer on the roster.
• Six Georgia receivers on the 2019 team missed playing time on account of injuries.
Smart called it a “merry-go-round” of receivers when explaining why the Bulldogs’ pass game lacked consistency.
Georgia finished “only” 12-2 in 2019 with Fromm under center, ranked No. 4 in the nation.
Georgia QB transfers, coming and going
The Bulldogs had quarterbacks transfer out — and transfer in — in 2020, as well.
When Fromm made the surprise decision to leave after the 2019 season — perhaps exhausted from the constant social media criticisms and comparisons to Fields’ success in Ohio State’s statistical-friendly spread scheme — Smart dipped into the transfer portal.
Jamie Newman was the pick, the Wake Forest QB wanting to play in a more NFL-friendly offensive scheme.
The Covid-19 pandemic intervened, however, forcing Georgia to cancel spring practices. That cost Newman the necessary time to learn the playbook and terminology that arrived with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
The Bulldogs dipped into the transfer portal again in May landing JT Daniels.
Daniels reclassified into the 2018 signing class at USC after skipping his senior season of high school. It’s notable he was ranked No. 3 in that class behind Lawrence and Fields.
The Georgia quarterbacks room is crowded once more with the addition of 5-star signee Brock Vandagriff, now adding questions to the status of redshirt freshman Carson Beck.
Smart and his staff know it will always be a challenge to manage the quarterbacks’ room.
“Quarterback is unique because there’s only one, you can only have one on the field,” Smart said. “You go to DB, if I’m not the best corner, then I need to go play safety, or I might play nickel, or I might play dime, so many other places to play and grow as a player and develop, where you can be patient.
“Quarterback, it’s hard, because there isn’t but one of them on the field.”