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If Justin Fields Transfers From Georgia, There's a Path for Him to Play Elsewhere Immediately

A September gameday incident could leave the former five-star recruit with a convincing case to transfer without sitting out a year, citing the same waiver guidelines as multiple Ole Miss players did last offseason.

If freshman quarterback Justin Fields wants to leave Georgia and transfer to another school as USA Today’s Dan Wolken reported Monday night, the former five-star recruit from Kennesaw, Ga., could use the same new NCAA transfer waiver guidelines that helped Shea Patterson play this year at Michigan after transferring from Ole Miss. And Fields might have an even stronger case than Patterson did.

In April, the NCAA’s Division I Council provided new guidance to schools regarding waivers for undergraduate transfers who felt they shouldn’t have to complete the NCAA-mandated year-in-residence before taking the field for their new team. Here are those guidelines. Read No. 1 very carefully.

1. The transfer is due to documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete;

2. At the time of transfer to the certifying institution, the student-athlete would have been athletically and academically eligible and in good standing on the team had he or she remained at the previous institution;

3. The certifying institution must certify that the student-athlete meets percentage-of-degree requirements; and

4. The previous institution’s athletics administration does not oppose the transfer.

Patterson and several Ole Miss teammates used the Rebels’ bowl ban for the 2018 season as the mitigating circumstances outside their control. Here’s why Fields could use the same guidelines to help him play immediately if he chooses to transfer. (And ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported Monday that Fields still might stay at Georgia.)

During Georgia’s win against Tennessee on Sept. 29, Georgia baseball player Adam Sasser was overheard by other students in the stands yelling, “Put the [n-word] in.” Sasser allegedly was referring to Fields, who backed up sophomore Jake Fromm. While the accusation against Sasser was being investigated by Georgia’s Equal Opportunity Office, Sasser was dismissed from the baseball team. Sasser later issued a public apology on Twitter that certainly seemed like an admission. 

All of this has been documented by Georgia. So if Fields makes the waiver request, the NCAA panel that reviews that request would have access to all that information.

And it wouldn’t be a stretch at all if, in 2019, a young black man such as Fields said his safety and well-being might be affected by continuing to stay at a school where a white fellow athlete would refer to a black athlete by that word—even if it was lobbed from the stands while the player was on the field. Even if Fields wanted to transfer exclusively for playing time reasons, the NCAA would be foolish to challenge such an assertion and Georgia officials would be crazy to do anything except wish Fields well as he plays next season at his new school. Georgia’s administration could make a (quite convincing) argument that the fact that Fields’s younger sister Jaiden signed to play softball for the Bulldogs after the Sasser incident took place indicates that the family doesn’t consider the campus a bad environment. But it probably isn’t worth it for the Bulldogs to make that argument. No matter what anyone considers the real reason for the transfer, trying to force Fields to sit out would only make everyone else look terrible.

His next school could be anywhere, too. Remember, former Ole Miss receiver Van Jefferson used his waiver to play immediately at Florida, which is also in the SEC. So all the schools that could use a 6'3", 225-pound quarterback who can throw and run and would have three years of eligibility remaining probably should make their pitches. Given how many programs chased Fields out of high school, he would be quite coveted if he chose to leave Athens. Here’s a (very) partial list of programs that could need new starting quarterbacks next year: Oklahoma, Ohio State, Florida State, Auburn. Needless to say, he may have some excellent options.

If Fields does leave Georgia, it would end what seemed an odd marriage from the start. Fields originally committed to Penn State but decommitted in June 2017. Four months later, Fields committed to Georgia. When Florida and Florida State’s new coaches made late pushes in December with legitimate pitches of potential freshman playing time, Fields stuck with the Bulldogs even after Fromm, then a true freshman, quarterbacked Georgia to an SEC title and a College Football Playoff berth.

What made Fields’s choice seem less perplexing was that it was basically the same decision Fromm made a year earlier. Fromm signed with the Bulldogs even though former five-star recruit Jacob Eason had finished the 2016 season as Georgia’s starter. Fromm competed for the starting job but ultimately lost out to Eason. But Eason was injured in Georgia’s 2017 season opener, and Fromm took over and never gave the job back. The choice also didn’t seem that different from the one Tua Tagovailoa made signing with Alabama after Jalen Hurts had led the Crimson Tide to the SEC title and the national title game as a true freshman in 2016. We all know how that worked out. (Georgia fans know it all too well.)

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But the idea that lightning would strike twice seemed far-fetched. It also didn’t take into account that Fromm was not Eason. Fromm continued to assert his control of the job. He was one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks this season. He ranked No. 6 in the nation in yards per attempt (9.3) and threw 27 touchdown passes against five interceptions. Fields occasionally played when the game was in doubt—usually in a Wildcat role—but most of his action came running the second-team offense at the end of blowouts.

But Georgia coaches did try to get Fields into games until the season’s end. And if some of his last action was intended to prevent a transfer, then Georgia’s penultimate offensive possession of the 35–28 SEC Championship loss to Alabama may go down as one of the most fruitless drives in school history if Fields decides to leave. With Fromm playing possibly the game of his career and the score tied at 28 and 5:19 remaining, Georgia coaches sent Fields out with the offense. He rushed for a yard on the play. Four plays later, Georgia faced fourth-and-11 at the 50. Fields was inserted with the punt team to run a fake, but he only gained two yards.

If that’s the last snap Fields plays for Georgia, it probably would leave a bitter taste for all parties involved. But it might not necessarily harm either party. Georgia would be thin behind QB1, but Fromm has proven to be an excellent starter for the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, leaving wouldn’t necessarily doom Fields to a disappointing career. The past two Heisman Trophy winners (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray) were quarterbacks who left their original schools after their true freshman seasons. They turned out O.K.