Clemson-Ohio State offers QB matchup that could be 'the future of the NFL'

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. – Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields grew up nearly 20 miles apart in the northwest Atlanta suburbs. They’ve worked out with the same private quarterback coach, Ron Veal, since junior high school. And they’ve taken part in quarterback camps and showcases across the country. What began as a duel for rankings and scholarship offers will inevitably evolve into competition for the top spot in the 2021 NFL draft.

But for all of their geographic and competitive overlay, Lawrence and Fields have never actually faced each other in a football game. They’ve worked out together privately with Veal at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, thrown alongside each other at The Opening camp and at showcase events like the Rivals Five-Star Challenge in Atlanta in the summer of 2017. (Fields still feels like he got robbed when Lawrence won the MVP.)

The stage and stakes, for their first formal meeting, are exponentially higher at the Fiesta Bowl in the College Football Playoff on Saturday night. Lawrence’s No. 3 Clemson Tigers are carrying a 28-game win-streak against Fields’ No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes. Both sophomores are undefeated as starters in college – Lawrence is 24-0 and Fields 13-0 – and have spent their careers since junior high pondering what would happen when they did finally play.

The first meeting, at least officially in pads, could be the first of many. As there’s still a chance they meet next season, compete at the NFL combine and countless NFL Sundays beyond.

“This is the future of the NFL playing in this game,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said. “Like to me, that's the headline. For the next 10 years, you have … these two guys leading the way.”

Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields pose for a photo with Chandler Whitmer (R) after a workout at Harrison High School in Georgia. (Photo credit: Chandler Whitmer)

Both Fields and Lawrence acknowledged the serendipity of their geographic closeness and modest friendship unfolding on such a large stage. They are not close friends, but they’re certainly friendly enough to text each other on occasion and chat when their paths cross.

“It is kind of crazy...,” Lawrence said, “how we're ending up in the same spot, just different teams, is pretty cool.”

Fields agreed, and acknowledged the general expectation that Saturday night’s game could portend a formal rivalry. Both have authored significant careers in varying ways, as Lawrence led Clemson to a national title as a freshman and shook off some early struggles this year to finish with 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions. (Since throwing two early interceptions against Louisville on Oct. 19, he’s thrown 23 touchdowns and no interceptions.)

Fields has put forth jaw-dropping statistics for a first-time starter, throwing 40 touchdown passes with only one interception, and he has undergone a complete transformation. As a backup quarterback last year at Georgia, the Bulldogs’ staff attempted to utilize him as run-first threat. At Ohio State, he’s evolved into one of the country’s top passers — a testament to coach Ryan Day’s quarterback wizardry.

Both quarterbacks are sophomores on a trajectory to be coveted three-and-done prospects after next season.

“I really wouldn't be surprised if it did,” Fields said when asked about he and Lawrence dueling at the NFL combine in 2021 and beyond. “I think we're both great quarterbacks and we both excel in our games. I wouldn't be surprised to see that. If we were at the combine at the same time, or something like that, because it happened in high school. I think that would be pretty cool to see.”

No one is more excited about the prospect than Veal, a former star quarterback at the University of Arizona who works full-time for the Smyrna (Georgia) Fire Department. Veal has quietly become one of the most respected quarterback tutors in the country, earning respect for rarely promoting himself. Veal worked extensively with both quarterbacks, as did his former assistant and pupil, Chandler Whitmer, who is a graduate assistant at Ohio State. (Whitmer recalls going to Cartersville, Georgia, and watching film at the Chick-fil-A with Lawrence back when he was in high school.)

Veal is arriving in Arizona on Friday night to watch the game and described the whole scenario as surreal in a phone interview with Yahoo Sports.

“I think it’s one of the sweetest moments in my life, next to getting married and having a child,” Veal said. “Just knowing them personally and how hard they’ve worked to get that far. There’s a lot of other people in the puzzle, and I’m sure they feel that same way.”

Less than two years ago, Veal and Whitmer led both quarterbacks through workouts together at Harrison High School. Veal recalls there being three. Lawrence only remembers one. But everyone could agree on the level of competitiveness, as Lawrence was the No. 1 player in the class of 2018 and Fields was the No. 2 player.

They chatted during water breaks, but locked in on an attempt to one-up each other.

“It was pretty much like, ‘I’m not going to be the first one to miss,’” Veal said. “It’s probably one of the best sessions I’ve had where two kids really went after it.”

Lawrence is the more natural player, as Veal did little with his pure throwing motion. Whitmer remembers them joking: “We're not changing anything on this kid.”

Fields played baseball, which impacted his throwing motion, but the work at shortstop, he’s said, helped him while throwing on the run in football. Veal has been complimentary of Day and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, who have made Fields more comfortable staying in the pocket and furthered his understanding of reading defenses. The leap in the development has impressed Lawrence.

“He’s more and more polished as a passer,” Lawrence said of Fields. “Obviously, he's always been athletic with his legs. Just seeing how he's adapted. He's gotten so good at working the pocket. He really can be a pocket passer, too.”

Veal’s only complaint is that one of his quarterbacks is going to have to lose, which he calls bittersweet. Regardless, he’s going to revel in the first official matchup of quarterbacks who grew up 20 miles apart playing nearly 2,000 miles from home.

“I’m going to sit back and admire what they’re doing,” Veal said. “You are seeing two individuals you saw as little boys grow up and be on this stage.

“I think they are going to be rivals for a long time.”

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