Leadership is a word that gets thrown around a lot and is often attached to the best players on a team. And while the definition is simple, the concept of leadership is much more comprehensive.
I’m drawn to the way American scholar Warren Bennis contextualizes it: “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Leadership stems from social influence, not from authority or power. It maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a shared goal. It’s organized and empowering. It’s effects are also amplified under duress.
If that doesn’t define Justin Fields, I’m not sure what does – and he exuded those qualities all week leading up to Ohio State’s convincing win over Michigan State yesterday.
Without his head coach/offensive play-caller/mentor (Ryan Day), his position coach (Corey Dennis), three starting offensive linemen (Thayer Munford, Josh Myers and Nick Petit-Frere) a fourth lineman shifting to a position he really hasn’t played (Harry Miller), and a 3-time captain linebacker sidelined on the other side of the ball (Tuf Borland), Justin Fields prepared for one of the most consequential games of his career and executed at an extremely high level.
“It was crazy,” Fields said postgame yesterday. “It kind of felt like I was almost the coach for offense at times.”
He looked like it.
Fields handled adversity in preparing during the week with all of the changes he knew were coming on game day, but frankly it’s about how he actually handled it when the rubber met the road at noon on Saturday. When the biggest challenge is the most fundamental, basic part of football – the act of snapping the ball to the quarterback – the floodgates can open quickly.
But not for Fields.
Harry Miller did his best yesterday in an uncomfortable, new spot. But the first two drives (especially the first one) were rough. I’m not sure that Fields caught more than one or two snaps directly in his chest.
“I think Harry was a little bit antsy on the first drive, so the snaps were a little bit wild,” Fields said. “But as the game went along, he got more comfortable. So I tried to make some plays with my feet today. That’s going to happen in games, in big games. Whatever I have to do to help this team win, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Fields never fumbled a snap and had his reaction-time tested in big ways. Some of those snaps were several feet from the middle of his chest. If you have a breakdown on the snap, it’s nearly impossible to run a play effectively. Yet even on plays that could have broken down before they even started, Fields routinely played like Superman and gave Michigan State’s defense fits.
“If you’re going to be the head coach for one day, you want Justin Fields with you,” acting head coach Larry Johnson said after the game. “Boy, he’s a special young man.”
While he had to occasionally go into scramble mode, Fields didn’t press the issue when he didn’t have something readily available. He absorbed a few big hits, he threw the ball away when it was warranted, he took three sacks. He just flat out played a smart, controlled game. It was a noticeable step forward from his most recent performance two weeks prior when he looked like he was pressing against an extremely aggressive Indiana defense.
By day’s end, Wyatt Davis had also come out of the game with an injury. Ohio State’s best offensive lineman left the Buckeyes with only one starter in that unit and he was playing out of position. Instead of taking QB1 out of the game and putting him in bubble wrap with the outcome no longer in jeopardy, Fields did this.
“You could just see today the way he attacked the game,” Day said. “On that one run, chasing down the guy, cutting him off on the long run. That was just amazing. Some of those creative plays he made with his feet. Throws he made down the field. I thought he played really gutsy in a situation where we had to be really careful with the offensive line in what we were doing.”
The Heisman-candidate finished the day with a career-high 104 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. He also completed 17-of-24 passes for 199 yards and two more touchdowns. The Buckeye offense finished the day with 322 rushing yards, 521 total yards and six touchdowns.
Considering the unprecedented circumstances, yesterday’s game will go down as one of the most memorable in Ohio State history.
Who knows how the rest of this season will go for the Buckeyes. The national championship aspirations are still very much alive after a convincing win in East Lansing. But with the upcoming rivalry game with Michigan in serious jeopardy and the current uncertainty around the Big Ten’s qualification rules for a championship game appearance (there are reports those rules could change), Ohio State knows they’ve put their best foot forward when they’ve had the chance to play.
And without a sliver of a doubt, Justin Fields is the Buckeyes’ unwavering leader.
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