Justin Fields spent six months committed to Penn State, enjoying a meteoric rise in his recruitment along the way. That verbal pact ended Tuesday night when the 5-star quarterback parted ways with the Nittany Lions.
“This is probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Fields wrote on Twitter. “I know that I will disappoint some people by my decision and for that I apologize.”
The announcement occurred just one day after he advanced beyond Elite 11 finals in Los Angeles. Fields appeared primed to compete at The Opening later this month alongside fellow Penn State pledges Ricky Slade and Justin Shorter, who called him a “dream quarterback.”
— The Opening (@TheOpening) June 5, 2017
He will indeed reunite with that duo at the event, but instead on the outside looking in at a Nittany Lions class that dropped to No. 5 in 247Sports’ 2018 composite rankings following Fields’ departure. As news circulated across social media and text message threads late Tuesday night, the development proved especially stinging for members of that class.
Jesse Luketa, a linebacker who earlier this spring called Fields “one of the most athletic individuals I’ve ever seen,” seemed shocked when he spoke with Land of 10.
“Honestly, I don’t know what to say about this situation,” he said. “It’s a tough situation. We were taken by surprise.”
While most Penn State commits declined to comment about the de-commitment, Luketa also took to Twitter in an attempt to rally the Nittany Lions football community.
Adversity is something we in Happy Valley are very well accustomed to, Loyal to one another, the fans, & above all the institution #WeAre 🦁
— Jesse Luketa (@OttawasVeryOwn) June 7, 2017
It’s a gut punch for Penn State fans who watched Fields soar in recruiting-industry rankings this spring, drawing comparisons to Deshuan Watson and Cam Newton from 247Sports and Rivals.com, respectively. He is now considered the No. 6 overall prospect and No. 2 quarterback in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Fields initially committed to the Nittany Lions on Dec. 1, shortly after a season in which he tallied 3,946 offensive yards and 38 total touchdowns in 12 games at Harrison (Kennesaw, Ga.) High School. Despite his lack of proximity to campus, the 6-foot-3, 221-pound playmaker ardently remained a member of Penn State’s class throughout the remainder of a whirlwind junior year.
New offers arrived in bunches during the winter and spring, pushing his scholarship total past 40 schools by May. Still, Penn State continued to exert itself, declining to take anything for granted.
Coach James Franklin welcomed him to Happy Valley on April 22 for the Nittany Lions spring game. While discussing that experience with our colleague Chris Kirschner on May 19, Fields sounded like a recruiter just as a much as a recruit.
“I really just got to experience the fan base there,” he said. “They were awesome. The environment for a spring game was great. The fans were going crazy and that was definitely good to see for the other recruits. I think it had a big impact on them also.”
Penn State coaches returned the favor by traveling to the Peach State last month for a live look at the Harrison High spring game. Fields accounted for 4 touchdowns in one half of action, showing off his dual-threat skill set in front of Nittany Lions assistants and Georgia Bulldogs coaches alike.
This is what life has become for Fields — constant attention from a slew of college squads in the Southeast.
Florida coaches contact him up to five times per day, while Georgia’s staff isn’t far behind that pace. Auburn and LSU sent representatives to Fields’ final week of spring practice. Florida State offered him in April and eventually could emerge as a force in this recruitment.
Meanwhile, as accolades mounted, national rankings escalated and collegiate attention reached a new level, Penn State sat nearly 800 miles away. This was always going to be a bumpy road to the finish line for Franklin and Nittany Lions offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and ultimately that journey ended eight months short.
“My decision to reopen my recruitment is in no way a reflection of any deficiencies of PSU, its coaches, players or fans,” Fields wrote Tuesday. “I still believe that PSU is a great academic and athletic opportunity for any student-athlete, and it will remain one of the top schools that I would consider.”
Though he left the door open for a potential return, we rarely see that kind of reconciliation come to fruition on the recruiting trail. Fields obviously feels he needs to explore alternative options, and he can do so now with a clear conscience. In State College, the staff can’t afford to wait for him to change his mind, and there will be an effort to reset the 2018 board of targets at the position.
News surrounding Penn State and other quarterback recruits has been quiet since Fields pledged, and strategic emphasis was placed elsewhere during a widespread spring evaluation that ended last week. According to 247Sports, the Nittany Lions have extended eight offers to passers in the 2018 cycle.
Among this group, only Fields is currently uncommitted.
Quincy Patterson, a 3-star recruit from Solorio Academy in Chicago, is one who could surface here. The Virginia Tech pledge presents dual-threat abilities, lives in Big Ten territory and, like Fields, advanced at Elite 11 finals last weekend.
Devin Leary, another member of the 2017 Elite 11 class set to compete at The Opening, doesn’t hold an offer at this time but he might be one of the first prospects to receive a phone call as Penn State works to renew its 2018 quarterback search.
The 6-2, 189-pound prospect set New Jersey high school passing records for yards (3,688) and touchdowns (48) as a junior, leading Timber Creek High to a state championship. The Garden State has been fertile recruiting territory for Penn State, and he is among Franklin’s most recent follows on Twitter.
Leary, a 4-star prospect in composite rankings who committed to North Carolina State in April, isn’t a rushing threat like Fields or Patterson, but he opened a lot of eyes last weekend in Los Angeles.
“Devin is supremely talented,” Elite 11 coach Quincy Avery told Land of 10. “He was spitting nothing but fireballs out his arm the whole entire time. You walked away from his pro-day performance [Leary posted the best score among 25 competitors] and knew exactly why he was there. It was impressive to watch.”
Whichever quarterback replaces Fields, who joined 5-star DE Micah Parsons as the second top-10 recruit to de-commit from Penn State in seven weeks, he will have a difficult time matching the lofty expectations that will swirl around him.
“Justin has everything you want in a quarterback,” said Avery, who has followed Fields’ development since the player’s freshman year. “He has the ability to make all the different throws. I’ve had the chance to see a bunch of high school quarterbacks for a really long time, and up to this point, he has the strongest arm I’ve ever seen from a QB that age.”
Expect Fields to expand his collegiate horizons this summer. Undoubtedly, as the dust settles from his bomb-drop announcement, several schools will clamor to be first in line as a new phase of this recruitment begins.
The 247Sports crystal ball includes experts’ predictions of Fields to Auburn, Florida and Georgia since Tuesday night. It’s a forecast now led by the Gators, who carry 50 percent of total projections.
“I think when you’re a young man, and you have your whole life, a lot of times you just second-guess whether this is the right decision and things of that nature,” his father, Ivant Fields, said last month. “We’re letting him work that out within himself. It’s part of being a man — evolving. He’s a young man on the brink of being a man, so he has to figure that out.”
Unlike with programs such as Florida, quarterback help in 2018 isn’t a dire need for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State starter Trace McSorley could return for his final year of eligibility in 2018. Behind him, redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens appears ready to take starting reps when his chance arrives, and he earned 2017 spring game offensive MVP honors.
Sean Clifford, a member of the 2016 Elite 11 class, adds new blood to the quarterback room this summer. He was a top-10 pro-style quarterback in the 2017 recruiting cycle and led St. Xavier (Cincinnati) to a state championship last autumn.
Whether this depth served as a double-edged sword with Fields’ recruitment might never be known. The coveted quarterback went on the record multiple times in recent weeks to state he would be comfortable with a redshirt freshman season, but great players don’t want to miss reps. And Fields is a great player.
This could be the moment that launches a domino effect across the college football recruiting landscape. If Penn State now pries a passer away from another program, that team also will re-enter the hunt for a player at the position, and so on.
You don’t need to look far back for an example in State College.
Penn State lost grips on a pledge from Elite 11 QB Brandon Wimbush when he flipped to Notre Dame in 2014. The Nittany Lions responded by flipping Stevens from Indiana.
Recruiting is cyclical, and this chain of events seems to occur every year. Quarterback is simply too important in this sport to remain status quo, and top talent isn’t easy to hold on to as things evolve and other suitors rise.
Sometimes you’re the beneficiary of such developments. Other times, you get bitten by them. On this occasion, Penn State suffered the latter fate.