Two years ago this week, Justin Fields sat in a director’s chair alongside former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer outside Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Dilfer introduced Fields to two broadcasters before an interview on the NFL Network.
“I'm pretty sure I’m the least talented quarterback on set,” Dilfer said as he patted the baby-faced passer on the shoulder.
Fields had just been named MVP of the Elite 11, a prestigious quarterback competition for incoming high school seniors, after delivering an all-time performance in the finals.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“I don’t think we’ll ever see a performance like Justin put together,” said Joey Roberts, the Elite 11’s director of scouting.
The showing marked a notable chapter in Fields’ rise as a decorated recruit from suburban Atlanta and left observers with a glimpse of his talent. Fields, who spent last season at Georgia before transferring to Ohio State, had outshined a field of gifted players including Trevor Lawrence, who last fall led Clemson to a national championship as a freshman.
Elite 11 participants begin competition at regional events, taking part in various passing drills that are graded by coaches like contestants in a beauty pageant. Dilfer, who runs the competition, said an MVP is selected based on about 50% on their high school game film and measurements, with about 25% each tied to their performances at regional contests and the final showcase.
Fields left his most sizable impression during the 7-on-7 passing contest in the finals.
According to statistics kept by 247Sports, Fields completed 72% of his passes for 16 touchdowns without an interception to lead his team to the title.
“He was just a surgeon,” Roberts said. “Every time you blinked, they were in the red zone. We were just blown away by the fact that this is not supposed to be, technically, his best asset — his passing ability. But it was. And you’re like, 'Gosh, if you put him in pads and allow him to run around, what can he become?' "
In 7-on-7 competitions, quarterbacks are prevented from running, something Fields did often at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. He was considered by most recruiting services to be a dual-threat quarterback.
Roberts recalled when coaches instructed Fields to diagram his favorite play on a whiteboard at the Elite 11 finals. They asked about his pre-snap audibles, including who he designated as the “hot” receiver in case a blitz forced an adjustment.
Fields responded, “I am the hot read.”
They laughed. If Fields’ first option wasn’t available, he’d scramble. It was a fine approach in games, but an option unavailable in passing tournaments.
Elite 11 quarterbacks are given playbooks that are amalgamations of the ones Dilfer used in his NFL career, which include heavy portions of the West Coast offense. Linemen do not rush the QBs, who wear tank tops and gym shorts, but in 7-on-7 play the passers must read defenses and scan several receiver targets in 3.5 seconds.
Fields never appeared rushed.
“I can’t stress enough that it looked like child’s play for Justin,” said former Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who was Fields’ coach during the Elite 11. “He was really, really prepared.”
The performance raised Fields’ profile as a national recruit, and he overtook Lawrence for a time atop 247Sports’ quarterback rankings for the 2018 class. For a player who started only one full season in high school, it was an important step.
Lawrence ultimately reclaimed the top spot in the rankings by the end of 2018, though Fields remained a consensus five-star prospect and ended with a .9998 rating in 247Sports’ composite rankings. He is the highest-rated prospect to end up at Ohio State in the modern recruiting era; former OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor had a .9997 rating.
The track record of Elite 11 MVPs is mixed. Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa took the top award the year before Fields, but other recent winners never lived up to their recruiting hype, including Blake Barnett and Asiantii Woulard.
For Fields, the fanfare from his performance lingers.
“We’re still waiting to see if that potential is to be realized,” said Barton Simmons, the director of scouting for 247Sports. “But if that was a glimpse of what he can be, then there is no ceiling on his ability.”