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True freshmen Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence compete for starting QB job

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Trevor Lawrence's reputation was already something of a local legend before he hit high school. His mom, Amanda, remembers being at a restaurant about a half-hour outside their hometown of Cartersville, Georgia, when a man nervously approached, asking for an autograph. Trevor was in eighth grade at the time.

Cartersville high school coach Joey King had heard the hype, too, and he knew Lawrence would be something special. But the first-year coach had another QB on the roster, a 6-foot-5 junior with a strong arm, too. Still, he was curious enough about the kid everyone was buzzing about to invite him out for spring practice, four months before Lawrence would officially begin high school.

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On the first day of practice, King had his offense run a four-vertical concept -- deep routes for all the receivers. When the snap came, Lawrence saw a Cover 2 defense, looked off the linebacker, unleashed a bomb and hit his receiver in the ear hole of his helmet.

King turned to his assistant coach, who stared back wide-eyed and grinning.

"We were just like, 'This kid's going to be special,'" King said.

Thirty minutes south down I-75, Justin Fields was a bit more of a late-bloomer, a pudgy kid with a motor and an arm. Lawrence was 6-3 in eighth grade, but Fields didn't hit his growth spurt for another year or two. He had wheels though. He could embarrass a safety and beat a corner in a full sprint down the field. So as Fields entered his 10th-grade season, his coach, Matt Dickmann, tore up Harrison High School's playbook and installed a run-pass option scheme to take advantage of his young QB's skills.

Dickmann explained the power read to Fields, then installed it into the game plan. The first time Harrison ran it, Fields broke off a 60-yard touchdown run.

"Seemed like every time we put in a new play, he'd execute it 100 percent," Dickmann said, "and we'd just go, 'Wow.'"

Talk to anyone around that 30-mile stretch of Northeast Georgia, and they'll have their story about the first time they saw Fields or Lawrence do something they never imagined a quarterback that young could do. You'll hear from Fields' teammates about how he'd devour a playbook and be able to cull a never-before-utilized play from memory and execute it flawlessly. You'll hear from Matt Santini, Cartersville's mayor and a longtime football broadcaster, that early in Lawrence's career, the radio guys worked to downplay the majesty of the kid's throws because they didn't want to upset the families of Lawrence's teammates by lauding too much praise on a freshman.

"It wasn't an Einstein move, they weren't going to win that game without the switch. They just weren't. But I hope that opens eyes because teams will do it in every [other] spot -- tackle, guard, center. They'll figure a way. But playing the best quarterback, sometimes there's a big blowback -- especially if it's an unseen commodity." Justin Fields' father, Pablo

Lawrence and Fields are special, the top two recruits in the 2018 class, both capable of doing seemingly anything. And for their next trick, both are looking to do something unprecedented. They want to start for teams with incumbent QBs that, just nine months ago, were in the College Football Playoff.

In any discussion about the impacts Lawrence or Fields might make this year, there's a third name that is inevitably mentioned: Tua Tagovailoa.

In January, Alabama was playing for a national championship. For the second straight season, the Crimson Tide had been led to the title game by QB Jalen Hurts. But when it became clear the offense wasn't clicking and Alabama was facing a halftime deficit to Georgia, coach Nick Saban did the unthinkable. He benched his starting QB and turned to an untested freshman.

Had Saban taken the safer route and stuck with Hurts, or had Tagovailoa not paid immediate dividends by leading Alabama to a furious come-from-behind win, maybe we're not talking about two other playoff teams sending their starting quarterbacks to the bench. But here we are.

"Kelly [Bryant] has been our guy for the last year, and the new kid comes in, and you have to defend your street," Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow said of the QB battle there. "It's a lot of what happened in the national championship game last year. It worked out then, but it doesn't always work out."

That's the looming question, right? Did Saban start a trend or was this a one-off scenario, something that worked because it's Alabama, and everything always seems to work out just right for the Tide?

imageTua Tagovailoa threw the national championship-clinching pass last season and could throw more daggers if he wins the starting job. Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire

"It wasn't an Einstein move," said Pablo Fields, who'd watched the game with his son. "They weren't going to win that game without the switch. They just weren't. But I hope that opens eyes because teams will do it in every [other] spot -- tackle, guard, center. They'll figure a way. But playing the best quarterback, sometimes there's a big blowback -- especially if it's an unseen commodity."

Heck, even Saban isn't quite ready to commit to this long term. He has deftly avoided naming a starting QB for this season, in spite of Tagovailoa's title-game heroics, so it's certainly not clear that other coaches should rush to follow Alabama's lead.

On the other hand, the steady increase in quarterback transfers and the exponentially more refined products arriving from the high school ranks means the fall camp battles at Georgia and Clemson and Alabama could effectively set a precedent for the future of the position in college football. Something's got to give, and everyone's looking to the three playoff teams from a year ago to make the call.

"It's an ego position," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "You can keep six linebackers happy by giving them a series here or there, and you can keep the D-line happy by rotating them. The quarterback is a hard position to rotate."

And yet, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has already talked about finding ways to use both QBs this season, and Georgia fans are eagerly comparing the Jake Fromm-Justin Fields dynamic to the David Greene-D.J. Shockley battle plan from the early years of Mark Richt's tenure there: two QBs with divergent skill sets joining forces to win an SEC title.

"You start looking at the dynamic, competition breeds success," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "We've sold this program on competition, and I think those guys are going to make each other better."

So maybe that's the answer. Maybe there's a starter and a closer. Maybe there's the guy and the secret weapon. Maybe it all works out because everyone finds their niche.

"I would bet [Saban] goes in the season saying he's gonna play both, because he doesn't want one to leave," FAU coach and former Saban assistant Lane Kiffin said. "Usually playing both doesn't work real well, NFL or college, but I would anticipate both playing."

If Georgia had missed out on signing Fields, it would've been Cam Newton's fault.

imageJustiin Fields showed great arm strength during the Bulldogs' spring game. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

Fields had played in Newton's seven-on-seven league after his junior season at Harrison, and the Carolina Panthers QB had offered some advice to the hot-shot recruit.

Newton's career began at Florida, where he rode the bench behind a legend named Tim Tebow. Thing is though, Newton thought he was better than Tebow, and he wasn't alone. The problem, however, was Tebow was ensconced, a fan favorite, a guy they ended up building a statue of at Florida. The way Newton saw it, that's all that mattered to Florida's coaches.

"I'm a Tebow fan, so I can't say definitively Cam was better," Pablo Fields said, "but that was a quote from Cam to Justin."

Newton ended up transferring to Auburn, winning a Heisman and a national championship and being selected first overall in the 2011 NFL draft, but the end result wasn't the point. Newton told Fields to be sure that, wherever he landed, they were willing to give him a fair shot from day one.

That all seemed reasonable enough last October and November. But then Georgia won the SEC, won the Rose Bowl, came within one defensive snap of winning the whole darn thing. Would the Bulldogs really bench Fromm, the guy who took them to the brink of a national championship, in favor of a true freshman?

"That's a roll of the dice," Pablo Fields said.

In the end, Smart convinced the family Justin would get a fair shot, and it's a sentiment that, however far-fetched it still seems, has been repeated by Georgia's staff this month.

"He's a competing son-of-a-gun, and he's a hell of a good football player," Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said at the start of fall camp. "The future is very bright for him. As far as what happens in the future, playing and all that, that's taking place in the next few weeks."

Whether that counts as a promise kept depends on how the next few weeks play out. Pablo Fields said he has never asked for his son to be handed the job, just a guarantee that the best player will start. So the question is whether Justin Fields is already the best QB on Georgia's roster.

imageJustin Fields will compete with second-year quarterback Jake Fromm for the Bulldogs' starting QB position. John Bazemore/AP Photo

In Georgia's spring game, Fields certainly looked the part. He read the defense, checked down to open receivers. He ran the RPO, then threaded a laser through two defenders. He avoided pressure as the pocket collapsed around him, keeping his eyes downfield and getting off throws to the sideline with a small flick of his wrist.

"He's just too talented, that you're not going to be able to keep him on the sidelines," Dickmann said of Fields. "I know the other young man's talented too, but to me, Justin is such an unbelievable athlete. As soon as he's got the offense down like that, I don't know how you keep him off the field."

The guy running Calhoun High football's Twitter account decided to poke the bear last fall. Calhoun had a game against Cartersville, and on Twitter, the joke was that Lawrence accounted for the entirety of the team's talent.

"Tonight we travel south to take on Trevor Lawrence -- I mean Cartersville," the tweet read.

imageFive-star Clemson true freshman QB Trevor Lawrence impressed coaches at the Tigers' spring game in April. John Byrum/Icon Sportswire

Lawrence isn't much of a talker. Tall and wiry with the long, blond hair of a Southern California surfer, he already stands out in a crowd, so his usual preference is to avoid an unnecessary spotlight. But this kind of a slight crossed a line. He replied simply: "Wrong move."

When the game was over, Cartersville had won 58-6, and Lawrence had thrown for 317 yards and four touchdowns.

"People see the long hair, and if they've never met him, they think he's laid back," said Kyle Tucker, an assistant at Cartersville and a former Clemson punter. "That's not him. He's a big-time competitor."

At Clemson, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins didn't get the memo. The stars of the Tigers' vaunted D-line make a habit of some good-natured ribbing of the freshmen. They tease because they care.

"I do it to make sure their mind's right," Wilkins said. "I like to test to see who's got that dog in them."

Lawrence's test came this spring. He'd taken a sack, and Wilkins and Ferrell let him have it.

This is the kid with all the hype? He ain't so great.

Lawrence didn't say a word. He simply got up, regrouped the offense, and on the next play, he scrambled out of the pocket, turned upfield, and sprinted for a long touchdown. After he crossed the goal line, he turned and shouted back at Wilkins and Ferrell.

imageTrevor Lawrence bounced back from a sack and delivered a dagger in the Tigers' spring game. Adam Hagy/USA TODAY Sports

So, he has the arm, the football IQ, the hair and the hype. But did this kid really just talk trash to Wilkins? That's a sign he's really ready for the big time.

"They try to get in his head a little bit," linebacker Kendall Joseph said. "He's not a big talker, but he's not scared to say something. He's made a few plays, and we're always messing with him, so he'll mess with us a little bit. They test his maturity, and he's handled it well."

No one questions Lawrence's talent, but if he's going to unseat Kelly Bryant as Clemson's starter, he has to win over the locker room, too. That's no easy job for a freshman, when the senior has already paid his dues. But not many guys go toe-to-toe with Wilkins so casually, so audaciously. That's how you win respect.

"The players know," Dabo Swinney said. "Trust me, they know. And they determine who runs out there first based on their commitment, their performance and their knowledge."

There's a story Matt Dickmann likes to tell about Fields' unwavering popularity in his hometown. It was late October of Fields' senior season. A few weeks earlier, Fields suffered a broken bone in his right index finger, essentially ending his career as Harrison's QB. But he still wanted to be a part of the team, so he stayed glued to Dickmann, listening in on each playcall. And at this one game, Dickmann had just yelled in a play, then took a few steps back off the sideline before tripping. He whirled to see what he'd toppled over, and there was a small child, pen and paper in hand, asking Fields for an autograph.

"It got crazy around here," Dickmann said.

And yet, there was Fields, still on the sideline, still working each play as if he was taking the snap. Sure, he was the biggest name in town, and he was the No. 1 recruit in the nation, and his future was set. But here was his chance to prove something else to people, to showcase his smarts. He couldn't get on the field, where his athleticism was obvious, and so he perched next to his coach, or held his arm around Harrison's new quarterback, working as a de facto coach.

This, Pablo Fields said, is what people don't understand about his son. He'll push for playing time at Georgia not because he's so talented, but because he understands how to use his skill set.

"His biggest attribute is his mind," Pablo said of his son. "He's a phenomenal athlete, but if they could measure his brain, his ability to think on the fly, that'd wow them the most."

imageJustin Fields and Trevor Lawrence on an official visit to Georgia. Courtesy of Ron Veal

At Clemson, the measurements came a little easier for Lawrence. He was already drawing comparisons to Deshaun Watson, the guy whose high school records Lawrence snapped at Cartersville, and who now set the standard by which Lawrence would be judged in a Tigers uniform. Still, Swinney had already hyped his freshman as "further along physically" than Watson had been at this point in his career, and so the 55,000 fans that packed Memorial Stadium for Clemson's spring game were simply waiting to see if the kid could live up to the advanced billing.

On the third snap of the game, Lawrence's first in front of the home crowd, he faked a pitch to his tailback, stepped up in the pocket and unleashed a rocket, 47 yards downfield, hitting Tee Higgins in stride for an easy touchdown. It sure looked like the future had arrived early.

"It's hard to start any better than that," Swinney said after the game.

In May, Justin Fields posted a photo to his Instagram story from back home in Kennesaw, Georgia. The photo was a grainy, off-center shot of Lawrence in sandals and shorts. The two often work out together, and they've shared the same personal QB coach, Ron Veal, since grade school. It was a reminder that, for all the competition on their respective campuses, they've always had a rival, another QB to act as a benchmark, a push.

Are they ready? That's probably the wrong question, Veal said. They'll always be refining another detail, but they've been ready. Now it's just about getting the chance to prove it.

"They're constantly working on their game," Veal said. "That's the thing, that's why they are what they are. They wanted to be the best. That's not being cocky. That's just the way they work."

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Wednesday, 12 December 2018