Justin Fields couldn’t have been more impressive to Pat Fitzgerald during the quarterback’s recruiting visit to Northwestern in September 2016.
Too impressive for the coach’s liking, in fact. Northwestern was one of the first programs to offer Fields a scholarship during his rapid ascent as a college football prospect, but Fitzgerald didn’t delude himself about his chances to sign him.
“After he left campus, I looked over at (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) Mick (McCall) and said, ‘Well, what a special young man that is. I wonder who he's going to play for,’ ” Fitzgerald quipped at Big Ten media days in Chicago.
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On Friday, Fields will begin training camp as the prohibitive front-runner to succeed Dwayne Haskins Jr. as Ohio State's starting quarterback. The second-ranked prospect nationally in the 2018 recruiting class, Fields is the highest-rated quarterback the Buckeyes have ever had.
For Ohio State’s sake, he’ll need to live up to that billing quickly. Those who know Fields believe he’ll be up to the task.
Fitzgerald said that he regarded Fields’ highlight tape as “unbelievable” before his visit. But it was Fields’ personality and attitude that stood out when they met.
“You meet with some kids and it’s just ‘Wow, what an impressive young guy,’” Fitzgerald said. “He was a ‘Wow.’ He lit up the room. He’s really, really bright. He'd look you in the eye, had great answers to the questions we asked: from a leadership standpoint, what kind of teammate are you going to be? What's important to you about the game?”
For Fields’ coach at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, his arrival in Columbus is particularly special. Matt Dickmann grew up in northwest Ohio as a big Buckeyes fan.
When Fields chose to leave Georgia, Dickmann didn’t push for him to transfer to Ohio State. He left that decision to Fields and his family. But he believes Fields and Ohio State are an ideal match. Dickmann has known Ryan Day since the Buckeyes’ coach was a graduate assistant at Florida and is a fan of how Day has developed quarterbacks.
But he mostly believes in Fields, on and off the field. Fields became a starter as a sophomore and showed impressive improvement that season. It was the next season, after Dickmann installed a run-pass option offense, when Fields truly blossomed. Part of that was based on Fields’ rare blend of passing and running. The other part was his intelligence and dedication. He had close to a 4.0 grade-point average at Harrison.
“Being as bright as he was, we knew he would make good decisions,” Dickmann said.
He said that Fields learned concepts and could implement them almost immediately. That will be important because Day’s scheme is regarded as complex. Haskins had two years as a backup to learn the system before he became as a star. Fields doesn’t have that luxury. (The only other viable option as a starter — Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak — has had even less time, arriving in June.)
Then again, Fields has something Haskins lacked — natural ability as a runner. Dickmann said that Fields ran a sub-4.4 time in the 40-yard dash during the spring at Ohio State, remarkable for someone listed at 6 feet 3 and 223 pounds.
But Dickmann said it would be a mistake to characterize him as more of a runner.
“A lot of people that don't know him will think, oh, he's an ‘athlete,’” he said. “No, he isn't. He's a great passing quarterback that's a great athlete.”
Fields didn’t really show that in the spring game, in which he completed only 4 of 13 passes. But spring games are not always the best gauge of a quarterback’s potential. Dickmann said that Fields can make every throw, a contention backed by former Harrison receiver Dawson Brown. A longtime close friend of Fields, Brown transferred to Harrison as a senior. In a preseason scrimmage, he ran a wheel route for Fields.
“It was a dart, but it had arc on it and was at my back shoulder where only I could catch it,” Brown said. “It really opened up my eyes like, wow, he can really make these throws.”
As for some of the intangibles that separate talented quarterbacks — poise and leadership — Dickmann and Brown raved about Fields. Dickmann said he never saw Fields get rattled. If he had nerves, he hid them well.
“I feel like his No. 1 quality is being a leader,” Brown said. “He's a natural born leader. No matter what circumstance you put him in or whatever cards are dealt against him, he's always going to come out on top because he’s real hard on himself and he expects nothing but greatness and legendary things from himself.”
But what also impressed Brown was that Fields was no prima donna.
“Even though he had the hype, he had the size, he had the stats and everything, he never really talked about it,” he said. “He just kept his head down and worked and he just stayed competitive, stayed humble. That's why I really look at Justin as a best friend, just because the way he acts and the way he carries himself is special.”
Growing pains are inevitable, especially for a player with such limited experience. Day said he accepts that. But Fields’ talent is immense, and so is his desire to live up to it.
“That young man is going to give the scarlet and gray everything he's got,” Dickmann said. “Be proud of the young man that he is and the integrity and character he has and how he's going to represent the Buckeyes.”