SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Justin Fields remembers the moment he knew he made the right decision coming to Ohio State. It wasn’t when he first arrived in Columbus last January—he felt like an outsider, was homesick and contemplated his transfer from Georgia. It wasn’t during spring ball—he didn’t have a firm grasp on the Buckeyes’ complex offense yet. It wasn’t during summer workouts or fall camp either.
On the fourth play of the Buckeyes’ season opener against Florida Atlantic, a second-and-4 from the Ohio State 49-yard line, Fields kept the ball off the run-pass option, found a seam over the shoulders of left guard Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers, and raced for a 51-yard touchdown. As Fields sprinted downfield, he found himself in deep thought.
“For most people, you’re just running to the end zone,” Fields says. “But for me, that was a life-changing moment. I made a lot of great relationships at Georgia and I didn’t want to leave. It was hard for me to leave. But after I scored that touchdown, I knew this was the place for me. That’s all I could think about, just running and looking at the sky thinking that.”
The play was a big deal for his team, too. While they’d seen flashes at practice the last several months—whether Fields was breaking off a big run with his 4.4 40 speed or throwing a 60-yard pass—it showed everybody that, as Myers says, “this cat can play.”
In his first year as Ohio State’s starting quarterback playing for first-year head coach Ryan Day, Fields has led No. 2 Ohio State to the College Football Playoff where on Saturday it will face No. 3 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. The last time the Buckeyes were in the playoff in 2016, they also played the Tigers here and were embarrassed by a score of 31-0. While there are plenty of factors within the program that’s led it back to another final four, the biggest may be Fields. “He’s done such a great job this season,” Myers says, “and here we are.”
This year’s group of playoff teams has arguably the best group of quarterbacks. There’s Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, who shocked everybody last year when he won the starting job as a freshman and marched his team to a lopsided championship-game win over mighty Alabama. There’s LSU’s Joe Burrow, who has been the best player in the country this season and won the Heisman Trophy as proof. And no matter what his professional future holds, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts will go down as one of the greatest college football players of all time.
Then there’s Fields. While the majority of buzz around him swirled during the offseason when he became a poster child for the transfer portal after leaving Georgia for Ohio State, his ascension has been remarkable and arguably under-appreciated. He was a Heisman finalist after accounting for 50 touchdowns (40 passing, 10 rushing) with just one interception in 13 games. He has the fourth-best quarterback rating in the country, trailing only Tagovailoa, Burrow and Hurts. He led Ohio State to a Big Ten championship and now the playoff. Again, this after transferring to a new school with built-in camaraderie and culture. But Fields doesn’t care if he gets attention for these feats or not.
“I know it was tough for me coming into school and getting adjusted and that took a while at Clemson, which is an easy place to get adjusted because it’s a small town and all that,” Lawrence says. “But he went to Georgia and got adjusted there, and then left and went to Ohio State and had to do it all again. I just think it shows how resilient he is that he’s worked hard to get to where he’s at. I think he’s worked for everything he’s gotten. He’s had to earn it.”
Even though Fields has been propped up on a football pedestal since high school where he and Lawrence—who grew up 20 miles apart just outside of Atlanta—were the top two prospects in the 2018 recruiting class, he doesn’t act like it. Like Lawrence, Fields is poised, sharp and doesn’t get rattled. He’s also studious and a copious note taker. One time during the offensive install process, Fields was taking such detailed notes on his iPad that quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich recalls Day pausing to tell his quarterback to stop writing everything down. Otherwise they weren’t going to get through the meeting.
“Sometimes it’s like, ‘O.K., enough with the notes,’” Yurcich says. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that he’ll listen to everything you say, so you better be accurate in everything you say, because he’ll remember. That makes you have to be more prepared as a coach and on your game. The smarter the student, the more prepared you have to be.”
Fields has been at Ohio State nearly a year now. He’s happier than ever and coaches notice how he always walks into the Woody Hayes Center smiling. Fields recently said that “building relationships with these guys is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” But he didn’t click immediately. Fields had a rough start in Columbus and nearly went back to Georgia. It took a while for him to get comfortable in the program and living in cold weather. It helped that Day called him several times a week to check in and that veteran wide receivers Austin Mack and K.J. Hill explained routes and concepts to him.
He also had to pick and choose his spots when it came to leadership. “You gotta be quiet and earn your respect,” strength coach Mickey Marotti says. “I make fun of this generation, but the one thing they know and they see is you cannot be fake. You’ve gotta be real. Generation Zs and Ys are very protective. You can’t come in and shoot your mouth.
“[Fields] shut his face, went to work and found his fit.”
At this point, it’s almost like Fields never had that first year in Athens with the way he’s integrated himself and performed so effortlessly at Ohio State. He goofs off with everybody in the locker room and sprints downfield to be the first one to celebrate with J.K. Dobbins after the running back scores a touchdown. And now as he plays in his first playoff game—and maybe the national championship in a few weeks—it will be more apparent how Fields and Ohio State have gelled so well.
“Of all the things he’s done, that’s the thing I’m so proud of him doing,” Day says. “In a short period of time assimilating himself and seeing him enjoy playing football.”
Added Fields: “Coming here was a matter of getting the chance to do it. [Ohio State] has made me 10 times the better player than I would have been if I went somewhere else.”