Trevor Lawrence, for about two full collegiate seasons, has been crowned the unquestioned first overall pick of this year’s upcoming draft. Right behind him, was Ohio State QB Justin Fields, but after two subpar games against Indiana and Northwestern, draft analysts started to overthink Fields and his entire body of work over two seasons at Ohio State. Some went as far as to rank BYU QB Zach Wilson ahead of him on their big boards, and even projected Wilson to be selected before Fields in their mock drafts. Well, I think it’s fair to say that Justin Fields heard everything the doubters had to say about him heading into the College Football Playoff Semifinals. In what was the most significant game of his Ohio State career, Fields had the biggest game of his career. He took on Clemson and fellow QB Trevor Lawrence and absolutely stole the show, posting a stat-line of 22-28 for 385 yards and six touchdowns. However, what we needed to see from Justin Fields went well beyond a stat sheet.
We already knew Justin Fields was an extremely talented quarterback, whose physical tools would drop the jaws of any organization in position to select him come April. Despite the record-setting performance that will forever be engraved in Sugar Bowl history, what we learned about Fields was far more impressive than a loaded box score. A number of key traits that make a promising quarterback prospect were on display on New Years’ Day.
The first that comes to mind is the level of urgency shown throughout the entirety of the game. Fields understood the importance of staying ahead of the chains early on in this battle. There was no hesitation on his part to use his top-end athleticism to gain yardage. In addition to using his legs to stay in favorable down and distance situations, he was quick in diagnosing the defense, and dumping the ball to his checkdown from start to finish. In what may seem to be miniscule in comparison to all that took place within the matchup, these two details played a large role in keeping the Tigers defense on their toes. However, there is a downside to the superior athleticism Fields possesses. That is, the amount of hits he endures when making an effort to extend plays for his football team.
On an impressive 11-yard run in the second quarter, Fields took what looked to be a game ending rib shot from LB James Skalski. Flat on his back and evidently writhing in pain, he did what not a single person witnessing that moment expected him to do: Fields walked to the sideline, sat out a play and came right back in. As if that alone wasn’t impressive enough, he threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Olave on his first play back in the game to give the Buckeyes a 28-14 lead. The toughness displayed in response to that crushing blow was mesmerizing to say the least.
Upon doing some research on Justin Fields prior to the Sugar Bowl, I discovered a quote of his from Hudl’s Youtube series “Contenders.” A series that follows some of the top high school football players around the country. When asked what he would say to a player on an opposing defense, Fields said “Don’t hit me hard, because you’ll make me mad…nobody wants to see me mad, I become a different creature”. The Clemson Tigers would have a difficult time disputing that sentiment. To bounce back from that, and will his team to a spot in the College Football National Championship, is a level of leadership and toughness we may have never seen before on this stage. That’s just who this young man is.
While the toughness, leadership and urgency to keep continued stress on the defense were all impressive, that wasn’t all Justin Fields wowed viewers with. Throughout his college career, there have been concerns about his arm strength. Can he thread the needle on tight window throws? Does he have the arm strength necessary to consistently hit the deep ball downfield? These doubts were put to rest rather quickly.
His first touchdown pass of the night was an 8-yard strike to his tight end Luke Farrell, with potential first-round cornerback Derion Kendrick in coverage. Kendrick was draped all over Farrell, but with anticipation and trust in his teammate, Fields placed the ball in the perfect spot for Farrell to be the only one with a chance to make a play on the ball. If that wasn’t enough for the naysayers, Fields had one more trick up his sleeve. He delivered a beauty to teammate Jeremy Ruckert. Slicing through two Tigers defenders for yet another highlight-worthy play. Twitter exploded with high praise for the quarterback. Those who never overreacted to the aforementioned Indiana and Northwestern games were puffing their chests.
While those who demoted Fields in their rankings were begging for forgiveness, little did they know, he was nowhere near finished with reclaiming his spot as one of the top dogs in this draft class.
Fields followed those two NFL caliber touchdown throws with two additional jaw-dropping missiles from long range. The first was a 56-yard touchdown to Chris Olave, for what would be their second touchdown connection of the evening. Fields was standing on his own 38-yard line, and hit Olave in stride right at the goal-line. Then came the dagger. The throw that was without a doubt, the one that would end Trevor Lawrence’s Clemson career on a sour note. The 45-yard strike to wide receiver Jameson Williams for six. Another dime in stride, all while dealing with limited arm strength due to what could have very well been a set of broken ribs. It was apparent Fields was determined to outduel Lawrence and walk off the field as the better quarterback that night, and he did just that.
The Sugar Bowl taught us everything we needed to know about who exactly Justin Fields is. The urgency on the field, keeping his team in favorable positions by sustaining drives. The competitive edge, to step on the same field as the guy everybody deems to be far and away from you talent wise, and completely own the game from beginning to end. The toughness and leadership displayed after falling victim to a brutal collision involving the crown of a helmet and his rib cage. Coming right back into the game and throwing a touchdown, then telling his Head Coach Ryan Day “there’s no way we’re losing this game.”
To show this ensemble of characteristics during the biggest game of his career, on the grandest stage he has stepped on up to date, was nothing short of remarkable and will leave a lasting legacy on the sport for as long as it is played. Justin Fields is a gamer, he’s an elite level talent, and he’s someone any fanbase should be thrilled to have lead their team for decades to come. With another showing like the one we witnessed last Friday, he can easily work his way into that number one spot on draft night in April.