Ahead of the national championship, Justin Fields' high school coach relives his dominance in Georgia
Less than a week from the College Football Playoff National Championship, Matt Dickmann returned a phone call from an out-of-town writer. Dickmann has answered a ton of these calls over the last 3 years. As Justin Fields’ high school coach, it comes with the territory. It’s different now than it was when Fields was the decorated 5-star Georgia recruit at Harrison High School (Ga.). Fields’ dad, Pablo, handled any and all media requests that came their way once the season started. Dickmann used to tell media members looking for a Fields scoop that he wouldn’t talk about his quarterback’s recruitment, but that he’d be happy to talk all things Harrison football.
On this day, though, Dickmann is ready to talk all things Fields. Like, he’s so ready that before the writer can get out the first question, Dickmann interjects when he hears a claim that Fields’ success at Ohio State was something that everyone saw coming.
“Oh no. If you ask me, it caught a lot of people by surprise. I remember what all of those people were saying a couple years ago. I remember what they were saying on ‘College Football Live’,” Dickmann told SDS. “I was saying at that time, ‘They are all gonna eat their words.’”
Two years after Fields’ well-documented transfer from Georgia to Ohio State, he’s right where he wants to be — 1 victory from college football immortality.
While Dickmann didn’t have any say in Fields’ switch after his freshman season in Athens, he couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Go figure that Dickmann grew up in Ohio and he’s a lifetime Ohio State fan. Dickmann says he would’ve been happy to watch Fields play anywhere, “as long as it wasn’t the team up north.”
COVID prevented Dickman from being a semi-regular at Ohio State games and practices in 2020. Nonetheless, his memories of Fields’ dominance as a prized Peach State recruit are clear as day.
“We were playing Sprayberry (Ga.) one time, and he had a guy coming dead at him. He spun out of it and then he continued to go on and break — I don’t even remember how many tackles — but it was silly,” Dickmann said.
Good news @FootballUGA fans, @justnfields has announced he’s enrolling early at UGA. The Harrison QB will then be able to participate in spring football. #uga2atl #GoDawgs #DawgsOnTop pic.twitter.com/PZ7Ff7ly8Q
— WSB-TV Sports Zone (@WSBTVsports) January 5, 2018
Dickmann can tell all sorts of Fields stories. By the time plays like that became a regular occurrence during Fields’ senior year, he was known as one of the top recruits ever in the 247sports ranking era. His closed-lipped recruitment — he flipped from Penn State to Georgia — didn’t stop the regular appearances from college coaches from flocking to the sidelines to see Harrison play.
There’s an oft-used GIF of Kirby Smart was the reaction from a play that Dickmann recalls well. After Smart showed up in a helicopter to watch his 2018 quarterback commit take on Dalton High School, he got a front-row seat to watch Fields avoid a sack, roll to the right and throw to the other side of the field for a touchdown.
That gave us this internet gold:
Kirby Smart watching Justin Fields throw for 6 touch downs last night… pic.twitter.com/lNhlYiGpb6
— Brandon Langley (@Langley_Brandon) January 2, 2021
That was also the same game in which Fields suffered a season-ending broken finger. The last play of his high school career came when he scrambled and spun into a Dalton linebacker.
“He ran off I’m like, ‘Son of a gun. I hope that thing is just dislocated.’ But nope, it was broken,” Dickmann said. “What’s funny is in 34 years of coaching, I’ve never had anybody break their finger. (Fields) broke his finger twice, once on the left hand and once on the right. That’s what happens when you’re trying to make something extra happen.”
The irony of that injury was that against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, Fields got hurt again by spinning into a linebacker and taking an awkward hit.
“Maybe I’ll have to talk to him about that,” Dickmann said with a laugh. “No more spinning.”
When Fields was at Harrison, Dickmann made the decision to abandon the offensive comfort zone he had developed over the course of decades. His Wing-T based offense added modern spread concepts in Fields’ sophomore year. “The first time we put in power-read,” Dickmann said, “he went 60 yards to the house.”
In Fields’ junior year, Dickmann went all in with the run-pass option system. It was more shotgun, more spread than anything that Dickmann had ever run. Fields, a 4.0 student, got the concepts down and took off with it.
— Zach Klein (@ZachKleinWSB) November 19, 2016
He truly was a dual threat in Dickmann’s tweaked offense. It didn’t have a bad play design because of Fields’ ability to make something out of nothing. When teams like Allatoona loaded the box and blitzed Fields, he still found ways to pick up first downs with his legs or hit an open receiver. Fields would have stat lines like he did his senior year against Sprayberry, who watched him rack up 7 touchdowns with 16.4 yards per pass and 16.9 yards per rush.
When Harrison faced North Cobb as a senior, Fields had 208 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in a 45-42 loss. Fields tried to take the blame for the loss because he was stripped on a play that led to a North Cobb touchdown. Dickmann wasn’t having any of it, though. He had to remind Fields that letting up 45 points fueled that loss.
“Justin Fields doesn’t get rattled,” Dickmann said. “The only thing he does do is he’s very critical of his play.”
That’s why Dickmann said even when Fields has a bad game like he did against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship, it doesn’t happen in consecutive weeks.
Nothing surprised Dickmann about Fields’ career day against Clemson. It was the culmination of 2 years spent mastering Ryan Day’s offense, which was different than a Georgia offense that had much less emphasis on the downfield passing game. As Jake Fromm’s backup and occasional change-of-pace quarterback, only 2 of Fields’ completions in Athens went for more than 25 yards (one of which was hitting a tight end on the seam on Cover-3).
“I just don’t know that Justin ever felt there was a package or a plan for him (at Georgia),” Dickmann said. “If there’s no plan or package, obviously it’s tough for someone who’s that talented who wants to compete. I just don’t think he felt he was getting that opportunity.”
On Monday, Fields has an opportunity to close his college career in much better fashion than the anticlimactic finish to his high school career at Harrison. With limited capacity for the national championship, Fields will certainly have a group of supporters rooting him on back in his home state, especially at Harrison.
These last 2 years have been special for Dickmann. Besides the fact that he watched Fields star for his beloved Buckeyes, Dickmann led Harrison to its first state title in 2019. He went out on top and called it a career after 34 years. There’s still part of him that wonders how things could’ve played out in the state playoffs had Fields not broken his finger in 2017, but Dickmann has no problem filling a half-hour phone conversation with the things he did watch the generational quarterback do.
As Dickmann closes the book on yet another phone interview centered around Fields, he answers 1 more question.
Any special plans to watch the national championship on Monday night?
“Nah,” Dickmann said. “Just gonna be here at home. Probably gonna be a nervous wreck, as always.”