This time a year ago, more than a few folks figured Justin Fields would become Georgia’s starting quarterback before the 2018 season ended. (I was among them.) Didn’t happen. Didn’t come close to happening. Whereupon Fields did as you had to figure he’d do, meaning leave. He’s now considered the front-runner to be Ohio State’s starting quarterback, not to mention the co-third-favorite, as of late February, for the 2019 Heisman Trophy.
Every so often, though, we’re reminded that Fields, for all his hype, hasn’t done a thing as a collegian. The most impressive number attached to his name remains that 5-star recruiting ranking, which is what dazzled a lot of us and continues to dazzle many. But here we note that Fields, whose waiver to play immediately as a transfer was granted by the NCAA faster than you can said “immediately,” was on display at the Buckeyes’ spring game Saturday, and the results were not, er, dazzling.
True, he completed a 98-yard touchdown pass. That was one of his four completions in 13 attempts. (He also ran for a touchdown.) Afterward he conceded to reporters he didn’t know the OSU playbook in its entirety, which is understandable. As of New Year’s Day, he was in uniform — though not playing — for the Georgia Bulldogs at the Sugar Bowl. He’s a sophomore-to-be who wasn’t asked to do much as a freshman, and his senior year at Harrison High ended when he broke the index finger on his throwing hand in October.
Put simply, the man of whom so much has been written the past two years really hasn’t done much playing. Part of that was because of Jake Fromm, who wasn’t a 5-star recruit but has now seen off two of those — first Jacob Eason, now Fields — in the span of two Georgia seasons. Fromm might never win a Heisman — he didn’t even make second-team All-SEC last season — but he’s the one indispensable (and immovable) Bulldog.
Two years in, we absolutely know what Fromm can do, seeing as how he keeps doing it on a weekly basis. Fields is too famous be deemed an unknown, but he’s essentially unproven. He might well be as good as people seem to think he is; then again, he might not. If nothing else, he has succeeded in grabbing the attention of the fan bases tracking two of the nation’s top five programs, and that’s an achievement of some sort.
Quarterback transfers have become the way of the college football world. Changes in venue, however, tend to ratchet up the pressure on the relocator. Some guys handle it. Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray won Heismans in their new environs. Jarrett Stidham led Auburn to an SEC West title. Joe Burrow, who played in Ohio State’s 2018 spring game, wound up guiding LSU to a surprisingly good 10-3 season.
The upshot of such success stories is that a big-name transfer isn’t expected to come in and be one of the guys. He’s seen as a catalyst. Kelly Bryant, formerly of Clemson, is seen as a possible upgrade on Drew Lock at Missouri. Jalen Hurts, who did great things at Alabama before losing his job to Tua Tagovailoa, is now the heir apparent to consecutive Heisman winners at Oklahoma. After sitting out a season (no waiver for him!), Eason is ready to take over for Jake Browning at Washington.
All Fields has to do to win the hearts of Buckeyes backers is to be an improvement over the recent likes of Braxton Miller, twice the Big Ten MVP; J.T. Barrett, three times all-conference; Cardale Jones, architect of an improbable national title, and Dwayne Haskins, third-place finisher in the 2018 Heisman voting. Unlike the others, Fields won’t be coached by Urban Meyer, who again retired to spend time with his family, until the USC job opens, but by Ryan Day, who has never been a head coach.
That’s a lot to ask, but Fields — you’ve heard this already, I know — is considered a massive talent. He could well make good. But a high-profile transfer QB can’t sneak up on anybody. Fields threw more incompletions than completions in a spring game, and that got noticed. But at least his debut in new surroundings went better than Tate Martell’s.
You’ll recall that, when word of Fields’ interest in Ohio State began to circulate, Martell — then the backup to Haskins — offered an unsolicited Tweet: “Word of advice: Don’t swing and miss — especially not your second time.”
No sooner had Fields landed in Columbus than Mr. Bravado was looking for the exit. He alit in Miami, where Manny Diaz has succeeded Mark Richt. Martell made his Hurricane bow Saturday, completing 3 of 9 passes for 33 yards with one interception. From the Miami Herald: “One fan tried to start an ‘Overrated’ chant for the highly touted transfer, but no one followed.”
Some among this latest class of transfers — Hurts, Bryant, even Eason to an extent — have proved they can excel at the college level. Martell has not. Fields has not, at least not yet. What comes next should prove fascinating.
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