Ron Veal has been coaching quarterbacks for nearly 20 years, and between camps and private sessions, he’s seen more workouts than he can count. But there are two he’ll always remember.
In 2017, Veal had a couple of prized protégés. One was Trevor Lawrence, a tall kid with a big arm and natural grace. He played an hour up the road from Veal’s Atlanta home, and he’d lost just one game in his prep career at Cartersville High in Georgia. The other was Justin Fields, a bit of a late bloomer who’d burst into recruiting stardom by flashing a rare combination of arm strength and mobility. Fields played at Harrison High, about 30 minutes down I-75 from Lawrence.
To suggest that Lawrence and Fields were friends would be overstating things. Lawrence grew up in the QB spotlight, while Fields became a star recruit later in high school. Lawrence had seen Fields at a few camps along the way, but the two hadn’t really connected. Then Veal arranged a workout — his best student and his second-best student, though it was up to the recruiting services to actually rank them. Veal wouldn’t dare.
There wasn’t much talking, no subtle digs or chest-thumping boasts. Neither kid was much of a talker. They just went to work. Footwork drills turned into a ballet. Passing drills transformed into target practice. It felt a little like the world’s best game of H-O-R-S-E. Not a rivalry so much as a challenge.
“It was, ‘You complete one, I’ll complete one. You miss one, I won’t,'” Veal said. “It was a push session.”
A year later, Veal repeated the workout. By this time, Lawrence and Fields were the top two recruits in the nation, the former bound for Clemson, the latter sticking close to home and heading to Georgia. The quarterbacks were closer now, too. One was rarely mentioned in recruiting circles without the other. They’d exchange texts on occasion, and after that 2018 workout session with Veal, Fields posted a photo on his Instagram of Lawrence, and hearts all over the football universe fluttered.
Those workouts were the starting point. Two kids, both top recruits, both from suburban Atlanta, both working with the same QB trainer, both destined for greatness.
Nearly two years later, Veal has his flight booked for Phoenix, where his protégés will step onto the same field once again when No. 2 Ohio State (where Fields has since transferred) faces No. 3 Clemson in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) on Saturday. This time, there’s a ticket to college football’s national championship game on the line. That their paths have looped back around to another intersection felt almost inevitable for two signal-callers with so much in common. The journey here for Lawrence and Fields, however, has rarely followed an expected course.
Lawrence emerges, Fields sits
Both Fields and Lawrence knew they had competition when they arrived on campus. Lawrence was behind an incumbent starter (Kelly Bryant) who took Clemson to the Sugar Bowl in 2017. Fields had to beat out Jake Fromm, Georgia’s starter who nearly won a national championship as a true freshman. Neither one expected to be handed a job based on recruiting rankings, but both were promised an opportunity.
At Clemson, that’s exactly what happened. Lawrence opened the season as the No. 2 QB, but he got regular reps throughout the first month of the season. In the Tigers’ fourth game, Lawrence was exceptional, torching an overwhelmed Georgia Tech defense and, as it turned out, convincing his coaches he was ready to take over as the starter.
For Fields, things didn’t go quite so smoothly. He saw action, but it was sporadic — often for just a play or two at a time and almost always with a limited list of plays he could run. By the time Clemson anointed Lawrence its starter, Fields had thrown only 17 passes, just one coming against SEC competition.
“I went into games not knowing how much I would play,” Fields said. “I think the backup quarterback has the hardest job out of everybody because most positions rotate, but the backup quarterback you have to prepare like you’re the starter even though you may not play at all. That was the hardest thing for me. I don’t think there was one particular moment, but it slowly went to, ‘Oh, I’m not going to play.’ I get where the coaches were coming from. Jake took them to a national championship [game] the year before, so I can’t fault them for that, and Jake wasn’t doing bad at all.”
While Fields’ frustration simmered at Georgia, the ascendance of Lawrence at Clemson came with its own drama. Bryant met with coach Dabo Swinney, learned he’d been benched, then disappeared. He’d been excused from practice that Monday, but when he didn’t show up for Tuesday’s work, either, coaches were worried. The next morning, Swinney got a text. Bryant was done. He would sit out the remainder of the season, then transfer to Missouri for 2019.
“He’s on to what he’s doing, and I pull for him,” Swinney said earlier this season. “But I’d make the same decision 1,000 times out of 1,000 times. That’s my job.”
Fields’ father, Pablo, recalls a conversation he had with Nick Saban when Fields was being recruited by Alabama. Saban said it was incumbent upon a coach to give a guy with that much talent a chance to get experience. Pablo Fields figured that’s how most coaches saw it. It’s only now, after seeing his son endure a year on the bench, that he realizes how tough those decisions are.
“There are championship coaches that made tough decisions the normal guys wouldn’t make,” Pablo Fields said. “[Bill] Belichick and Saban and Dabo. Dabo saw something in the future. It takes courage. So I don’t fault anybody, because if you ask 100 people, most will go with the safe bet.”
Fields leaves, Lawrence flourishes
Justin Fields wants his play to speak for him. It was his play that always told the better story. Now he was relegated to the sideline, and one comment from a Georgia baseball player turned the spotlight entirely on the soft-spoken QB.
Adam Sasser was in a section of students watching the fourth quarter of the Bulldogs’ blowout victory over Tennessee. Fields was, as usual, relegated to the sideline. Sasser began shouting for Georgia to play Fields, using a racist epithet to do so, and repeating it several times. Police were involved. The details were shared on social media. Sasser was dismissed from the baseball team. And there, in the middle of it all, was Fields.
“I was getting pulled on from all different directions,” Fields said. “It was crazy because some people were like, ‘Are you not going to do anything about it? Are you not going to confront him?’ I’m not that kind of guy to go up to someone and try to start something. There were just too many voices coming my way, so I just tried to stay out of it, really.”
While Fields rarely saw the field (he threw just 14 passes in Georgia’s final eight games and didn’t take a snap in a Sugar Bowl loss), Lawrence flourished at Clemson.
He capped his first season with a national championship.
Fields decided to transfer. He applied for a waiver to play immediately. He noted the racist incident as a reason the NCAA should approve the request. Some Georgia fans panned the family, saying it was using the incident for its own gain.
Fields and his dad talk every day and share a devotional. There was a week last season when Pablo suggested that they pray for everyone who criticized his son.
“We said a lot of prayers,” he said.
Fields finds a home in Columbus
Lawrence ended his freshman season as the most famous player in college football, and all eyes were on the 6-foot-6 freshman with the long blond hair.
Fields had the opposite problem. He was alone.
Fields looked seriously at four or five transfer destinations, but he felt a connection with Ohio State coach Ryan Day. He’d never set foot on campus, had never even been to the state of Ohio, but that connection was enough.
Fields made things official on Jan. 4, 2019, and his father moved him in to the campus that Saturday. Two days later, Pablo Fields got a phone call.
“Come and get me, Dad,” Justin Fields said on the other line. “I want to transfer back to Georgia.”
Fields might’ve been the most talented quarterback in the country, but in that moment, he was just a homesick kid. He told his dad he knew there’d be criticism, but he could take the media hit. He was lonely, and he was overwhelmed.
“He would rather deal with the known at Georgia, even though the situation was very uncomfortable, than the unknown,” Pablo Fields said.
Again, father encouraged son to rely on his faith. Give God time, he said.
A few days later, Chris Olave, Sevyn Banks and a handful of Ohio State teammates, mostly guys from the 2018 class, knocked on Fields’ door and asked him to play a game of pickup basketball. They all lived in the same dorms, and the rest of the group had been playing 5-on-5 on the courts across the street for a year now. The invitation was a right of passage, really. Fields was one of them now.
Fields called his dad afterward. He’d made some friends. He had some fun.
It mattered to Ohio State, too. That first day out on the basketball court, teammates finally got a chance to see the real Justin Fields, the competitive kid with all the energy and enthusiasm that would become the heart of the 2019 offense.
“I could see him smiling, and it was a pretty fun moment for us,” Olave said. “It made a big difference and it showed. Having him around, he opened up more. He was a quiet guy when he first got here, and being more talkative and when he gets on the court or plays video games he gets competitive and it brought that side out of him. Having him smile a lot and laugh, it was huge for us.”
Pablo Fields was a fixture throughout the spring and summer, making more trips to Ohio than he’d ever made to UGA. There was one visit, later in the spring, when Pablo met his son after practice, and he could see a familiar look in the kid’s eyes.
“I did good today,” Justin said.
Lawrence’s rocky sophomore start
The low point of Lawrence’s career to date was a one-point win on the road against a team coached by a Hall of Famer. In context, this makes some sense. The guy lost two games in his entire high school career, and he’s 24-0 as Clemson’s starter, so the low points are tough to find. Funny thing is, though, this particular low point got a lot of traction.
It’s not so much that Lawrence was bad in that victory over Mack Brown-led North Carolina in late September. He was … fine. He led a winning drive in the fourth quarter, and for most QBs, that would be a mark of success. Lawrence lives in more rarified air.
“It was all sugar for him last year,” Swinney said. “He hardly made a mistake. We won every game by 21 points. I’d never been in a fourth quarter with him until we’d won 20 in a row.”
Coming off an iconic performance against Alabama in the national championship game, 2019 was supposed to be a coronation for Lawrence. He was already so good that his follow-up performance might be truly historic. The expectations were immense.
Then the season started. Game 1, two interceptions. Next two weeks, three more picks. Then came North Carolina, the first time in a year the Tigers played a close game. If this was historic, it was for all the wrong reasons.
“You’re just walking around and the TV is on, and they’ll be showing an interception I threw,” Lawrence said. “You just realize it’s crazy, all the propaganda that’s out there.”
If he’s honest, Lawrence knows some of the criticism was right. Those early games were a test of how he’d handle expectations, and sometimes he struggled. Swinney chalked it up to being “too confident, too knowledgeable,” but another assessment was that Lawrence was trying to be too much of what everyone else wanted.
“It was all sugar for him last year. He hardly made a mistake. We won every game by 21 points. I’d never been in a fourth quarter with him until we’d won 20 in a row.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney
By late October, he’d found his bearings. In a 59-7 win over Boston College, Lawrence had his best game of the season, completing 16 of 19 passes, with three touchdowns. He walked out of the locker room for a postgame news conference feeling triumphant.
“And the first question anyone asked me was about a pass that almost got intercepted,” Lawrence said. “At that point, it was like, ‘It doesn’t really matter.'”
It was a turning point. Once Lawrence stopped trying so hard, he suddenly found things came far easier. He enters the Fiesta Bowl having thrown 20 touchdown passes without a pick over his past six games.
“He’s so much better this year as a quarterback,” Swinney said. “It’s not even close. And I think a lot of people have missed a beautiful season.”
Fields the Heisman candidate
The worst game of Justin Fields’ season came in early October against Michigan State. The Buckeyes won easily, but Fields threw a pick. It would be the only one he’d throw all season.
Fields’ high school coach, Matt Dickman, had made the trip to Columbus for the game. He knew the past year had been difficult for his former quarterback. Dickman lives in Georgia, too. He heard all the same critiques, and he hated it for the kid.
“One of the most frustrating things I’ve dealt with in my 34 years of coaching,” Dickman said.
But then he saw Fields after the game — bright and bubbly, a big grin across his face.
“I hadn’t seen him smile so much and be so happy in high school,” Dickman said. “I could just tell how much fun he was having.”
Pablo Fields knows it sounds a bit presumptuous, but the truth is, he’s not surprised by this season. For more than a year, his son just wanted to let his game do the talking. He spoke volumes on the field this season.
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“He got a dose of life that isn’t put on ESPN,” Pablo Fields said. “We all go through things in life that don’t get put on display. His just got put on display. A parent never wants to see a kid go through adversity, but in the long run they have to go through those things that strengthen them in life.”
The season did include a hint of disappointment, though. Fields had planned to fly home to Georgia in mid-December to be on the sideline as his old Harrison team played for a state championship. But it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, he was in New York, where he was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
A full-circle moment
Fields begins an answer that seems obvious. If he knew then what he knows now, would he have gone to Georgia?
“I probably would’ve done things differently, but … “
He stops himself. He thinks it over for a moment. No, this was the right path. It had to go this way.
“All the things I’ve been through, my journey has made me a better person, a better leader and, really, more wise,” Fields says. “I’ve had a lot of guys ask me, ‘What would you do in this situation?’ They’re thinking of transferring or whatever. I just give the best advice I can. It’s just the trials and tribulations made me better.”
That’s the family’s mantra, Pablo Fields said. Their faith is strong, and they believe there is a purpose behind each step. Still, he knows his son still wears the scars of his turbulent first season.
“Him going through that, Justin may say he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, but me knowing my kid, I think he does,” Pablo Fields said.
Watching Fields flourish in his new home resonated with Lawrence, too.
“He’s earned everything he’s gotten, and it’s been cool to watch,” Lawrence said. “Just everything not going perfect for him and having to bounce back. He could’ve fallen behind or thought about how things could have happened, but he didn’t, and he’s had a really great year.”
Lawrence said he’s considered how easily things might’ve been different. Maybe Fields found a perfect fit at Georgia, got to play early, blossomed through the season and took down Alabama to make the playoff. Maybe Lawrence had a few bad games, Bryant stuck around and the job never opened up at Clemson. Lawrence knows he’s lucky he didn’t have to make the same hard choices Fields did.
Still, this season has been all about perspective for a QB whose view had always been from the top.
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“There’s something to learn from every situation, and sometimes it’s easier to learn in the bad situations than the good ones,” Lawrence said. “For me, if that’s the worst adversity I face is to get some criticism while still winning games, that’s great. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Lawrence and Fields met up over the summer of 2019, but it wasn’t some momentous occasion when Fields opened up about his struggles at Georgia and Lawrence gushed about his national championship. Truth is, Lawrence can’t even remember what they talked about. Just two guys who’d grown up a bit, catching up on old times. No big deal.
They haven’t talked since then, just a few texts traded before the season’s demands grew too vast. Now they’ll meet again, and this time it will be entirely different.
The last time the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked QB recruits from the same class started a game against each other was 2007, when Ryan Mallett and Michigan demolished Jimmy Clausen’s Notre Dame. This game has a far better narrative behind it, but Pablo Fields said the marketing doesn’t match reality.
“They’re not the rivals some people make them,” Pablo Fields said. “Justin may be less of a rival with Trevor than a lot of quarterbacks.”
Just like in those workouts with Veal years ago, there won’t be any trash talk. Lawrence and Fields share so much — a coach, a home state, a twisting journey — that it’s impossible not to share a mutual respect, too.
And Lawrence and Fields are trying not to take any of it for granted.
“Pretty much every night before I go to bed, I think about where I am and the place God has put me,” Fields said, “and I still can’t figure out how I’m doing all this stuff. Just seeing myself in this position right now is crazy.”
ESPN’s Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.