Two brand-name programs with designs on reaching the College Football Playoff lost their starting quarterbacks to injuries in Week 1. Florida State’s Deondre Francois will miss the remainder of the season after tearing the patella tendon in his left knee and Georgia’s Jacob Eason will sit out at least this Saturday’s game at Notre Dame due to a sprained knee ligament. The injuries figure to hurt both teams, but Francois’s seems likely to have a more profound effect on the Seminoles than Eason’s will on the Bulldogs, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
The first part of that equation is simple: Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is handing the reins of his offense to a true freshman that talent evaluators have described as a project. The second is more complex, but it involves a prospect even people who don’t follow recruiting year-round have definitely heard about. His name is Justin Fields, and he became the class of 2018’s No. 1 player, according to the the 247Sports Composite, last month after a spectacular summer that saw him win the most valuable player award of the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback competition.
A senior at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga., Fields is a 6' 3", 221-pound run-pass maestro who’s been compared to Cam Newton because he’s from the Atlanta metropolitan area and possesses a similar dual-threat skill set. Fields decommitted from Penn State in June, but instead of settling on a different program right away, he has prolonged his recruitment into the fall, unlike every other elite QB in the class of 2018 aside from Centennial (Calif.) High’s Tanner McKee, who doesn’t plan to enroll in school until 2020 after serving a two-year Latter-day Saints mission.
Florida State is a slight favorite for Fields, according to predictions compiled in the 247Sports Crystal Ball feature, but the Francois injury could complicate its pursuit of him. If Francois’s replacement, true freshman James Blackman, proves he’s the real deal, Fields could be hesitant to join a quarterback room led by a starter with two years of eligibility remaining when Fields would hypothetically arrive on campus. Plus, it’s reasonable to assume Francois is more likely to return to Tallahassee in 2018 than enter the NFL draft, on the thinking that he’ll want to repair his stock after being sidelined this season.
Georgia, which has the second-highest percentage of predictions in the Fields Crystal Ball, faces a similar situation in the wake of Eason’s injury. If true freshman Jake Fromm, the passer the Bulldogs tabbed to fill in for Eason starting this weekend against Notre Dame, balls out to cement himself as the starter this season and beyond, Fields might have reservations about trying to dislodge a true sophomore at the start of Georgia’s 2018 campaign. And unless Eason decides to transfer out of dissatisfaction over having been passed by a younger player, Fields would also have to beat him out on the depth chart.
Fields indicated in an interview with Atlanta radio station 680 The Fan last month that he hasn’t set a timeline for his decision, but waiting a while to see how things play out at Georgia and Florida State over the next few weeks wouldn’t be a bad idea. 247Sports insider Steve Wiltfong reported Tuesday on several other programs that are involved in Fields’s recruitment, including Auburn and Alabama. “I can’t really say exactly what I’m looking for specifically,” Fields told Wiltfong last week. “I’m looking for different things from each school. But, I’ll know it when I see it.”
The path to immediate playing time may not be the driving factor in Fields’s decision. If the Newton talk is closer to reality than most recruiting comparisons tend to be, he shouldn’t sweat having to beat out an older quarterback (or two) in camp. The head coach of the program he picks may not be able to keep Fields on the bench for long in any event—not only because of his talent, but also because of the predictable clamoring of a fan base hungry to see a hot-shot prospect in action against college defenses, even if he’s not quite ready for the bright lights.
It’s instructive to review the path taken by one recent high-profile quarterback prospect. The top dual-threat QB in the 2017 class, Tua Tagovailoa, spurned reported scholarship offers from a handful of programs closer to his high school in Honolulu to play for a program more than 4,300 miles away, led by a quarterback who was named the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman. Jalen Hurts’s presence at Alabama didn’t faze Tagovailoa, and it’s unrealistic to expect Blackman or Fromm to replicate Hurts’s success this season. Fields is also considered a superior prospect to Tagovailoa within their respective high school classes.
The college football recruiting world has spent months scrutinizing Fields’s social media posts, interview quotes and visit plans. He is the last blue-chip quarterback prospect on the board in the class of 2018, and it’s not a stretch to say his choice of school will have implications for at least one playoff race over the next few years. Fields’s recruitment was an enigma before injuries fouled up the quarterback situations of two programs high on his list, and now there’s even less clarity about his future. How those injuries will ultimately affect Fields’s thinking isn’t totally clear, but they do give him more time to suss out the implications before the big reveal.
In the meantime, there could be some mixed feelings for Georgia and Florida State diehards whipsawed by the obvious desire to watch their programs win with true freshman quarterbacks under center this season and the nagging feeling that every completion those quarterbacks make could hurt their chances in the Fields sweepstakes. What’s best for the Seminoles and Bulldogs on the field in 2017 doesn’t necessarily align with what’s best for them as they bear down on securing the commitment of 2018’s top recruit.