In happy times, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart celebrates a touchdown against Tennessee with quarterback Justin Fields.
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Smart still trying to juggle Fields situation through Sugar Bowl

He’s so good at so many of a head coach’s multiple tasks.    

But can he juggle?

Looking back on how the Georgia coach tried to juggle quarterbacks Jake Fromm and Justin Fields, you might not want him throwing around chainsaws just yet. Stick to the oranges and pingpong balls. Otherwise, bring a tourniquet.

Smart’s restless roster got a big infusion of new talent Wednesday on early signing day. The nation’s top-ranked inside linebacker (Nakobe Dean) declared that he will make the trip from Horn Lake, Miss., to Athens. They already had nailed down the top-ranked center (Clay Webb, who was smuggled across Nick Saban’s Alabama wall), and top-ranked defensive end (Nolan Smith), along with a wave of reinforcements for the defensive line. According to the 247Sports Composite the Bulldogs have compiled the second-best recruiting class in the country.

Second to you-know-who. But finishing close to Alabama in recruiting is a whole lot more palatable than doing it on the floor of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

Is Georgia having a great signing day really news anymore? Like we said, the guy can recruit. Smart and his staff are going to land these bountiful classes right until the day they run out of honey to spin for some 5-star prospect and his family. Recruiting is their oxygen.    

But on a day that is all about the comings in college football, so much of Wednesday at Georgia was about one particular going.

For this was the first time that anyone could get the head coach’s reaction to reports that his backup quarterback was in the “transfer portal,” which sounds like some doorway to another dimension, not just to Ohio State.

Smart said Wednesday that Fields was still on the Bulldogs’ practice field and still a part of the team’s Sugar Bowl plans. “I’m pleased with his work toward Texas and what he’s doing out there with us. He’s had a really good demeanor. Good reps and good competition,” he said.

The coach was not just taking the high road, he was building another road above that one.

While saying Fields was weighing his options, Smart’s choice of words when talking about how quickly discussions fired up with another quarterback signed by Georgia on Wednesday – Dwan Mathis, a 4-star from outside Detroit – would seem to indicate that Fields’ future did not lie with the Bulldogs.

“We liked (Mathis’) athleticism and his arm motion. He’s got a really strong whip, he can pop the ball. We didn’t stay in communication the whole time from (this summer) to finding out Justin was leaving.”

Not “if” Justin was leaving.

Backup quarterbacks are a big deal when you’re recruiting at the level Georgia is. Trying to keep them happy is only a problem for the most loaded of programs, where a 5-star talent like Fields can’t get on the field. Really, it’s a good problem, like trying to find just the right temperature to keep both your prized red wines and your whites.  

The topic of where Fields fit in the Bulldogs’ big picture was one that Smart chewed on like an oily rag all season. He hated talking about it from the start, but he indulged a series of questions on the subject Wednesday.

On if the possible transfer would affect how Smart might use Fields in the Sugar Bowl: “We’re trying to figure out how to beat Texas, and we’re going to do everything we can to beat Texas. He decided he wanted to play in the Sugar Bowl, and I said absolutely, I want you there. He’s come to work and support his teammates.”

(Editorial aside: I still find it hard to believe Fields would go to New Orleans if his transfer is indeed all but official. Or that Smart would want him there. Why keep juggling when you don’t have to anymore? Everybody just relax.)

On whether the coach was annoyed by the situation, particularly the timing of when the story broke: “I can’t get annoyed. The kids doing what he thinks is best for him, he’s looking at it from his perspective. I respect that. The timing is what it is. There is no good time for that.

“From a recruiting perspective it was challenging for us. Put yourself in the shoes of a kid trying to decide whether to come to Georgia as a quarterback. You don’t know if (Fields) is going to be there or not, that makes it tough.”
(Editorial aside No. 2: The pain of losing Fields is mitigated by the sudden, surprising signing of Mathis, an Ohio State commit who was flipped. If, as some reports indicate, Fields ends up at Ohio State, then what we have here is as close as college football comes to a two-player trade. For their part, the Bulldogs at least get some clear definition at the quarterback position, where there’s room for only one alpha male.)   

On whether the Bulldogs would be working to change Fields’ mind between now and the bowl game: “I don’t think there’s anything you can do from that standpoint. He’s not foolish enough to fall victim to that. We’ve been very open and honest that we would like for him to stay, that we want to support him and his endeavors here and all the goals he came here to accomplish.”

(Final editorial aside: That ship has sailed. Best of luck, Justin. There’s no call for hard feelings on either side.) 

Who knows if anyone – even Nick Saban – could have kept both Fromm and Fields content. We do know that watching Smart try to was nothing less than pure torture at times. Peaking with the SEC Championship game, when Fields was inserted at the most inopportune times as if just to prove that he was still wanted and needed. And then throwing the freshman to the wolves on a fake-punt play that may have been the century’s worst call.

As Fields was picking himself off the ground at Mercedes-Benz Stadium after that play, who could blame him if the word “transfer” may have been one of the first clean ones to come to his mind?

No, Smart was not much of a juggler in this case. But with the talent he continues to import to Athens, he’s going to have every chance to get much more adept at the art. 

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.

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