Decision to transfer to Ohio State proves wise for Justin Fields, Buckeyes

With a date in the National Championship Game against Alabama on tap for Monday night, the bet Ohio State coach Ryan Day and quarterback Justin Fields made on each other two years ago has paid off.

Fields has shown the physical ability Day expected when he transferred from Georgia, and Fields has displayed the leadership and toughness Day hoped he would bring along, too.

The quarterback even did his part to save the Big Ten season with a petition that drew more than 300,000 names in late summer after the conference’s leaders voted not to have sports this fall.

He said this week he hasn’t checked the petition lately. That’s part of a mission accomplished.

Next up is taking down Alabama and delivering a national championship for his teammates, his coach and himself.

“It’s definitely more meaningful because this is where we wanted to be before the season even started and when our season got canceled,” Fields said. “I think all of the stuff we’ve done in the past, all of the workouts, all of the getting the games canceled, saying we’re playing and saying we’re not playing, that messes with your mental (state), but just all of the stuff that this team has been through and all the stuff that everybody has been through here is just a big sacrifice just for this moment, so we’re just glad that we have the opportunity to play.”

Fields became a household name — at least in households that follow college football recruiting — in 2017 when he climbed up the recruiting lists to become the No. 2 prospect in the country according to 247Sports Composite rankings.

From Kennesaw, Ga., he went to the University of Georgia, where he backed up Jake Fromm, a sophomore who had led the Bulldogs to the National Championship Game the previous season.

Fields played in 12 games his freshman season and threw 39 passes, generally in relief of Fromm after the Bulldogs had taken control of a game.

Perhaps his most famous play in a Georgia uniform was a failed fake punt in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama, and that turned out to be his last game as a Bulldog.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes had a new coach in Ryan Day and a need at quarterback when Dwayne Haskins Jr. left early for the NFL.

Entering the season, Day had figured he would have at least two years to coach Haskins as Ohio State’s starter, but the likelihood he would enter the draft early rose with every Big Ten or Ohio State record Haskins broke.

The offense, with Day in his second season coaching quarterbacks and helping coordinate the offense for Urban Meyer, who announced in December that season he would retire in January, was notably more passer-friendly than earlier iterations, and that helped attract Fields.

“They really didn’t give me a sales pitch because they already knew I’d been through the recruiting process, so they weren’t trying to sell me,” Fields said in his first interview in Columbus in February 2019. “They didn’t really have to that much. Just going based off what Dwayne did last year and how much success he had in this offense, I felt like I could come in and hopefully do the same thing that he did.”

He liked that Day, who spent a season with the Philadelphia Eagles and another with the San Francisco 49ers, had coached in the NFL.

“He knows what it takes to get quarterbacks to the NFL, so just the offensive mind he has, I can tell that he’s a smart guy,” Fields said.

After winning the starting job, Fields was a near instant success at Ohio State last season.

He completed 18 of 25 passes for 234 yards and four touchdowns in his Buckeye debut against Florida Atlantic and never really looked back.

In 14 games last season, he completed 238 of 354 passes for 3,273 yards and 41 touchdowns. He ran for 10 more scores and was named the Big Ten’s top quarterback and offensive player.

Two of Fields’ three interceptions on the season came in a 29-23 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals, but that just served to motivate him to come back better as a junior.

Then the coronavirus pandemic threatened to end his junior season before it started, but Fields did not sit back and watch an opportunity to win the national championship and further his development fall by the wayside.

He started the petition and went on a media tour, appearing on numerous national shows to state the case the Buckeyes could (like many other programs around the country) play this fall and they trusted the school’s medical team to make it as safe as possible.

Chalk that up to another aspect of his development since arriving in Columbus.

“I think that was a huge step in his what you’re calling evolution as a leader,” Day said this week. “I think that that was big. When he first got here he had leadership skills. I think his ability on the field pulled some guys with him, and I think that as time went on, he became more and more of a leader.”

Although the competition was sparse, Day maintained he never promised Fields the starting job before he agreed to transfer to Ohio State.

The coach has also been candid about having to get to know his new quarterback on the fly, unlike the typical relationship that begins in recruiting and could involve years of development starting when a player is 15 or 16.

“Right from the get-go when Justin and I started our relationship and tried to be up front and honest with him,” Day said. “He was going to have to come in here and earn a spot. It was going to take hard work, what being the quarterback at Ohio State meant, and then we just went to work.”

That work included working with Day as well as 2019 Ohio State quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich, who was replaced this year by Corey Dennis after Yurcich left for Texas.

“When you go through things, together your relationship gets stronger, and we went through a lot of great times last year,” Day said. “You go through that Clemson game and you just learn about each other. Your relationship gets stronger when you go through tough times. You find out about each other.

“And then the offseason and fighting for a season and speaking up and his leadership and all those things, and then as we got into the season, a lot of the stuff we worked on during the season, and Coach Dennis and he worked on. It all kind of worked together early on, and then we went through a couple tough games where it didn’t really click the way we wanted to.

And to see him play the way he did and overcome a little adversity in this past game is what it’s all about, and that’s what life is all about.”

Fields has also developed the respect of his teammates, as All-American guard Wyatt Davis confirmed this week in recalling what it meant to the rest of the Buckeyes to see Fields take a vicious hit to the side but miss only one play last week in a rematch with Clemson.

Fields, who looked to be in physical distress at times, ended up throwing six touchdown passes in a 49-28 triumph for Ohio State.

“The amount of respect he has for his brothers to just not quit, I think that’s why he’s so respected on this team and he’s held at a high standard,” Davis said. “I don’t think there were any doubts that if he could, he would go back in and play.”

Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding recalled preparing for Fields as a changeup for the Bulldogs offense when he was a freshman at Georgia and confirmed the has seen plenty of development in him since in preparing for the next game.

“I think he’s come a long way obviously of understanding coverages and fronts and the how they fit together,” Golding said. “He does a really nice job of getting them in and out of plays. Obviously I think he’s got a really good arm, a really strong arm, but I think his accuracy has improved.

“I think he’s done a better job of keeping his feet in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield, but he still has the ability to be able to hurt you and tuck it and run. So I really think he’s become a complete quarterback, not labeled as an athlete. I think he can make the throws, can make the checks, understand his coverages, so I think he’s really grown up.”

And much of that goes back to the leap of faith Day and Fields took together two years ago.

“I think the connection that me and coach Day had from day one was genuine,” Fields said this week. “Of course everyone knows he’s a great offensive-minded coach, and I knew that he was going to make me a better player. That’s all I was really worried about when choosing a school, and when I knew it was going to work out was the first touchdown I scored against FAU during the first game of last year.”

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