Nobody knew quite what to expect out of Justin Fields when he announced his transfer to Ohio State in January.
The former five-star recruit out of Kennesaw, Georgia had been touted as the next big thing in college football since his spectacular, MVP performance in the 2017 Elite 11 passing camp, which gathers the best prep quarterbacks in the country to showcase their talent.
Fields checked all the boxes during that performance, from his preparation and mental capacity to his arm talent. Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who coaches at the camp, raved about Fields’ performance, even going as far as to say he hadn’t seen anything like Fields’ performance since the camp’s inception.
Fields would go on to commit to playing for the in-state Georgia Bulldogs in 2018, leaving Dawg fans salivating at the thought of Fields leading their offense.
But those thoughts never were given the opportunity to come to fruition as Fields was unable to supplant Jake Fromm as the starter at Georgia, and the freshman was seldom used throughout last season.
He entered his name into the transfer portal ahead of Georgia’s Sugar Bowl matchup with Texas, and after not playing a snap in the game, Fields was nowhere to be found during the postgame media availability in the team’s locker room.
Three days later, Fields confirmed the rampant speculation of a transfer to Ohio State via his Twitter account. With Dwayne Haskins forgoing his senior season at Ohio State to enter the NFL Draft, Fields was immediately thrust into the immense expectations that come with playing quarterback in Columbus despite not having even gone through a workout with his new team.
An up-and-down performance by Fields during Ohio State’s annual spring game in April did little to suppress the growing hype surrounding his elite talent, nor did Ryan Day’s unwillingness to name Fields the starter until late in fall camp.
By the time the Buckeyes took the field in Ohio Stadium for their season opener against Florida Atlantic, the buzz became palpable. Questions about Fields’ understanding of the offense, protections, or coverages were still very real, however, as the college football world got their first look at the quarterback.
Four plays later, Fields was racing 51 yards to the end zone to kick off his Buckeye debut, and he went on to throw four touchdown passes in a smooth performance that, more than anything, displayed a calmness and command that put to rest any question of how Fields would handle the moment.
And his legend was off and running.
That legend only continued to build as the season progressed, with Fields’ weekly outputs further cementing his place as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the marquee talents for the game’s most dominant team.
Through 11 games, Fields accounted for 43 touchdowns — 33 passing and 10 rushing — to help lead Ohio State to the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings ahead of its annual showdown with arch rival Michigan.
However, when playing at Ohio State, all the fanfare and goodwill a player can build through the course of a season can quickly disappear with a loss to Michigan. Fields had his share of big stages in the weeks prior in wins over Wisconsin and Penn State, but those stages paled in comparison to what he would see in Ann Arbor for The Game.
Fields’ response to the biggest stage of his career was a 300-yard, four-touchdown passing performance in a 29-point rout of Michigan to extend Ohio State’s streak to eight straight wins over the Wolverines and to finish off a perfect regular season.
The performance, in its entirety, was enough for Fields to earn his place in Ohio State’s storied history, and every win over Michigan will have its own special place in Buckeye lore. But every legend needs its drama, and one play, in particular, elevated Fields’ status from great to special.
Late in the third quarter, with Ohio State leading Michigan, 35-16, Fields was rolled up on by an offensive lineman, his left knee buckling as he fell to the turf. Fields would stay down in obvious discomfort as the training staff tended to him before getting up and walking off under his own power, albeit with a noticeable limp.
Fields would immediately go into the training tent, shielding him from the view of the thousands of Ohio State fans in attendance and all those in front of a television who wondered if they had just watched the Buckeyes’ national title dreams go up in smoke.
Fields came back into the game seven plays later, heavy knee brace in place, and he calmed the masses in grand fashion with a play that will be remembered for as long as Ohio State plays football.
On his first snap since re-entering the game, Fields was flushed from the pocket and rolled toward the Ohio State sideline. His eyes remaining downfield, Fields set his feet and unleashed a 30-yard strike to Garrett Wilson in the back of the end zone that pushed Ohio State’s lead to 42-16 and served as the dagger to the Wolverines.
After the game, Day called the play “magical,” adding, “I thought it was a Heisman moment. For him to go down, take that injury. He puts the brace on, comes back out and makes a throw … to make that throw, that’s about as good a throw as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Day went on to say, “That just goes to show you what’s inside of him. His heart, his character, his competitiveness toughness is as good as I’ve ever been around.”
Last week, Fields further displayed that competitive toughness in another gritty performance, this time for the Big Ten championship in a game where Ohio State would be tested like it hadn’t been all season.
After falling down by two touchdowns in the first half, Fields threw three second-half touchdown passes as part of a 27-0 Buckeye run to down the Wisconsin Badgers and secure Ohio State’s third consecutive conference title. Fields finished the game with 299 yards passing to go along with the three touchdowns and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player for his efforts.
Fields now has 40 touchdown passes on the season to just one interception, a ratio that may never again be rivaled. His 50 total touchdowns are the second-most in Big Ten history behind Haskins’ 54 touchdowns last season with at least one more game to play.
For his efforts, Fields was invited to New York this weekend as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. While he won’t win it, the sophomore’s invitation further solidifies his position as one of the best college football players already, despite just 13 starts to his credit.
Not bad for a guy who, this time a year ago, was used as nothing more than a gimmick for a program with national championship aspirations.
Of course, Fields’ opportunities to expand on his growing legend at Ohio State are far from over. The Buckeyes will take on the Clemson Tigers on Dec. 28 in the Fiesta Bowl in a national semifinal game.
Clemson, the defending national champion riding a 28-game winning streak, will present the biggest challenge of Fields’ career and the last obstacle standing between Ohio State and their ultimate goal of playing for a national championship.
But regardless of what happens in that game, Fields’ first season in Columbus has been a resounding success and one that will be remembered for years to come. And whenever and however it ends, Fields will get back to work as he heads into his junior season a year older, wiser, and with a season of experience to build on.
Fields’ legend is already blossoming and the best is likely yet to come, a scary proposition for the rest of college football and an equally exciting thought for everyone in Buckeye Nation.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.