At the start of June, some teenagers are running to burn their school notebooks.
Justin Fields was running the risk of burning a bridge with one of the premier football programs in the nation.
The summer before his final season of high school football at Harrison in Kennesaw, Georgia, Fields had to make what he still refers to as one of the hardest phone calls of his life to let Penn State head coach James Franklin know he would no longer be committed to the team.
“Before I called coach Franklin, I was nervous,” Fields said. “I was like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to do this right now.’”
Two-and-a-half years later, it’ll be a face-to-face meeting, as Fields leads Ohio State against the team he once thought he’d be playing for Saturday in the Buckeyes’ biggest test to date.
Franklin hasn’t forgotten losing out on the No. 8 high school football prospect of all time, but Fields wasn’t that when the Nittany Lions first took notice of his talent.
Before Fields received an offer from Penn State in July 2016, West Virginia and Northwestern were the most notable programs that had him on their radar. Less than five months and two unofficial visits later, Fields accepted Penn State’s offer.
“We were involved with him early, had a significant relationship for a long time,” Franklin said. “Obviously, very talented guy.”
So early, in fact, that Fields was still just a top 100, four-star prospect at the time of his commitment. By June, he ascended to the No. 4 overall player in the 2018 class.
Still, Fields said he had an affinity for former Penn State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead, who improved the Nittany Lions’ offensive output by nearly 100 yards per game in his first season with the program.
“The offense was doing great at the time. Coach Moorhead, definitely. He was there at the time,” Fields said. “He’s a great coach, a great offensive-minded coach. I just thought my ability to play and my relationships with the coaches and all the other commits would eventually help me to become a better player.”
But after Fields’ commitment, offers from other top-flight programs began flying in as he climbed recruiting boards. Oregon, Texas, Alabama and Florida, among others, were now knocking on the door, and the Georgia product said he felt bad about talking to other schools.
Fields said he felt like he wasn’t fully committed to his future coaches and teammates at Penn State and didn’t want to be that far from home, given that powerhouse programs in his own region were now catching his eye. That didn’t make his phone call to Franklin any easier though, and Fields said he took counsel from his father before making the final decision.
“It’s really like breaking up with your girlfriend,” Fields said. “Say if you have a good relationship with her, you don’t want to break up with her, but you might have to because of circumstances outside.”
When Fields entered the transfer portal following his freshman season at Georgia, Penn State once again became a possible destination, and fellow five-star 2018 Penn State prospect and current tackles leader Micah Parsons even attempted to persuade the quarterback to team up on social media.
Instead, Fields ended up with Penn State’s division rival in Columbus, Ohio, which Franklin said magnified the anguish of losing him in the first place.
“The losses in recruiting are hard to shake. You put so much into them. There’s no doubt about it,” Franklin said. “That’s where my conversations with the administration about competing for everything, because when you lose a recruit, you want to know why. When you find out what those why’s are, you want to try to eliminate them as much as you possibly can.”
Franklin and Penn State will be looking to eliminate Fields and Ohio State from the Big Ten East leaderboard Saturday, and unlike the decommitment, this time, the Nittany Lions will see him coming. Unfortunately for them, however, Fields’ success vindicates their earliest inklings.
“Based on what I’m seeing on film right now, I think we were right,” Franklin said. “He’s pretty good.”