Justin Fields off to a hot start, but can he catch up to Trevor Lawrence?

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

Justin Fields’ pass sizzled for nearly 50 yards in the air on Saturday afternoon, meeting Garrett Wilson so perfectly in stride on a post route that Wilson didn’t slow up until he was 15 yards through the back of the end zone.

The ball didn’t travel on the parabolic angle normally associated with a pass that traverses half the field. Think of the arc of an 18-yard crossing pattern and stretch it out.

The pass officially welcomed Justin Fields back into the college football consciousness, updating an on-field portfolio to match the progress of a revelatory offseason.

With the Big Ten’s late start and shortened schedule, Fields' trajectory this season must remain similar to that of his highlight-reel touchdown pass. He’s sprinting toward everything that lies ahead. And after completing 20-of-21 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout of Nebraska, Fields is back trending where we expected him – toward the Heisman Trophy, the top of the NFL draft and as the defining star on this loaded Buckeyes team.

Can Justin Fields catch his old friend Trevor Lawrence? After Ohio State ended its season with a bitter loss to Lawrence's Clemson team in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Fields and Ohio State are playing a compelling game of catch-up.

On Saturday, when No. 3 Ohio State plays its primetime matchup at No. 18 Penn State, it offers another high-wattage stage for Fields to illustrate his growth. Those who know Fields best say he’s made leaps this offseason – from leadership to skill development to having a more holistic understanding of the offense.

“I’m way more comfortable,” Fields said this week. “I think that the time that I spent with the guys in the offseason, the things we had to go through in the offseason, that made us a lot closer.”

Quarterback Justin Fields #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes passes against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Quarterback Justin Fields of the Ohio State Buckeyes passes against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The off-field development of Fields has been well chronicled during the pandemic. He ended up on “Good Morning America” spearheading the #WeWantToPlay movement. As other prominent players were opting out, Fields never wavered. A quieter kid by nature, the offseason helped him discover his voice and emerge as one of the Buckeyes’ leaders.

Fields has gone from being prodded to speak in front of the team to being comfortable there. Fields even took ownership of improving the team in the offseason, serving as one of the lead recruiters to lure Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon to Columbus.

The on-field development also appears to be significant on first glance. He’s submerged himself with coach Ryan Day’s football X’s and O’s, going from an executor of the offense in Year 1 at Ohio State to bringing a deeper understanding of the ‘why’ behind each play call and having a bigger voice in the gameplan.

Away from school for a stretch, Fields didn’t stop working when he was back home in Georgia. He worked out with two prominent quarterback trainers – Quincy Avery and Ron Veal.

Avery hosted quarterbacks from all over the country during the throes of the quarantine earlier this year, and he noticed guys like Florida’s Emory Jones, Penn State’s Sean Clifford and Miami’s D’Eriq King all following Fields’ lead.

“Being a super alpha among some of the most alpha men in all the country, the leader of their football teams,” Avery said. “He was a leader of those guys.”

Veal has trained Fields since he was in junior high and has noticed his vocal presence increasing distinctly.

“He’s becoming more boisterous,” Veal said. “He’ll say, ‘I want you here and there, do it this way and that way.’ That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen with him. He’s a quiet kid. He usually leads by doing. Now he’s doing the other parts.”

Considering the dizzying numbers Fields put up as a true sophomore in 2019, it’s daunting to think there’s much room for development.

Fields transferred to Ohio State from Georgia in January of 2019 and started every game for the Buckeyes last season. He led Ohio State to an undefeated regular season, Big Ten title and College Football Playoff bid, compiling a 41-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, accounting for 51 touchdowns and finishing the year as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

And what he said on Wednesday should send a shiver down the spine of Big Ten defensive coordinators, as he noted how much more comfortable he’s becoming.

“The defense looks slower moving,” he said. “That comes with studying film and being with Coach Day so much and getting that different perspective. Getting to see what he’s thinking when calling certain plays. It definitely helps me out and helps me be a better quarterback.”

Quarterback Justin Fields of the Ohio State Buckeyes calls signals at the line against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Quarterback Justin Fields of the Ohio State Buckeyes calls signals at the line against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Day is considered one of the country’s elite developers of quarterbacks. He played for then-offensive coordinator Chip Kelly in college at New Hampshire, coached quarterbacks for him in the NFL in Philadelphia and San Francisco and developed his own style as the offensive coordinator at Temple, Boston College and Ohio State.

Day pointed out in a phone interview that Fields has done a great job of “timing up the footwork,” which essentially means synching his feet with his eyes to help improve accuracy.

“He’s put a lot of work into it,” Day said. “In practice, if the look isn’t right, he wants to run it again. There’s been a lot of work put into that and it’s starting to show.”

Avery illuminated Day’s comments about the footwork by explaining that if the body doesn’t follow the eyes through a quarterback’s progressions, it can throw off accuracy. It impressed Avery on the laser touchdown throw to Wilson that Fields was able to manipulate the pocket to create room and move the safety with his eyes in order to deliver the strike.

“He just looks more comfortable,” Avery said. “He’s more organized when he’s going through his progressions. He’s finding completions. He knows when to be aggressive.”

Veal said he worked 22 sessions with Fields from March through the end of June. He said they mimicked “every route” that Ohio State runs, going through the proper steps, drops and verbiage to run it. “You can’t deny his talent,” Veal said. “The skill part is coming to where the talent is. They’re starting to meet. That’s the scary part.”

Day said that Fields has never verbalized anything about catching Lawrence, either on the field or in the NFL draft. But everyone who knows Fields points out how competitive he is, so they assume it’s a quiet motivator. Fields is widely regarded as the presumptive second quarterback taken behind his old friend Lawrence.

“Justin was a whole lot upset because they weren’t playing and Clemson was playing,” said Veal, who also works out Lawrence. “[Justin] just felt like I’m sitting here being quiet, and no one is paying attention to me while someone else is going off.”

Fields’ turn has arrived. And he’s off in 2020 just like he throws – on a jaw-dropping trajectory.

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