Four years ago when ESPN.com asked several high-profile college football coaches who was the biggest recruit who got away from them, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said it was quarterback Andrew Luck.
Four years later as Northwestern and Ohio State prepare for Saturday’s Big Ten championship game, Fitzgerald might put OSU quarterback Justin Fields in the same category as Luck.
Before the elite Power Five conference teams caught on to Fields’ talents, the Northwestern coach and the future Ohio State quarterback developed a good relationship. So good that Fields said earlier this week that he was “actually really close” to committing to Northwestern early in his junior year of high school in Kennesaw, Ga.
Fields wasn’t ranked among the top 300 prospects nationally when he attended Northwestern’s camp in the summer of 2016 or when he came back to watch the Wildcats play Illinois State in their second game of that season.
Northwestern has never recruited a consensus 5-star athlete, which Fields became by the time he and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence were the two top quarterback recruits in the 2018 recruiting class.
Fields never did commit to Northwestern. He committed to Penn State then decommitted before signing with Georgia. He was a back-up quarterback at Georgia for one season before transferring to Ohio State.
“I remember our recruiting office showing me his tape and he was, I call him a three-play guy. You pop on three plays and you go, ‘Yeah, he could play for us,’ ” Fitzgerald said on a Zoom call earlier this week.
“We thought we’d take a hard swing, and we thought we built a great relationship. And then everybody else, I think, watched the same tape we did, and we kind of got back to the back of the line,” he said.
Lima Senior graduate Chris Bowers, now the defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois, was Northwestern’s recruiting coordinator when Fields visited Northwestern.
“At that point, Fields wasn’t Ohio State, Georgia and Penn State. He had about six offers and Duke and Northwestern were two of them,” Bowers said.
“He came to camp before his junior year. He was in a walking boot. He had just left Duke with an offer. He didn’t throw there but he worked out for us. He didn’t run a 40. He had all that on video.
“But for a kid with a bad ankle at the time he threw it really well. He competed. And he put his boot back on at the end of the day.
“That speaks to his toughness. Justin Fields is tough. Sure, he’s smart and a great kid and can run and can throw. But he’s also tough,” he said.
Fields says he has good memories about Northwestern’s attempts to recruit him.
“I love Coach Fitzgerald. He’s a great person, a great coach and I just love the way he runs his program. I think they have a great culture over there and I think they do things the right way over there,” he said.
Fitzgerald said, “I’m a huge fan in every game but when we play. It’s one of those where you’re cheering for them except when you gotta go compete against him. He’s a heck of a football player and just a terrific young man.”