Carolina Panthers

Clemson’s Mark Fields flashed potential at Hough High. This week? Time to prove it.

Clemson’s Mark Fields returned to the Tigers for his senior season for the chance to win a second national championship (he did) and improve his draft stock (he can this week).
Clemson’s Mark Fields returned to the Tigers for his senior season for the chance to win a second national championship (he did) and improve his draft stock (he can this week). AP

Some NFL teams think Mark Fields could be the best cover corner in the Southeast — they just need a closer look at him.

That’s part of the reason he’s at the Senior Bowl this week after four years at Clemson, where he spent time as both a starter and rotational player.

He wants to prove them right, and he has until April’s draft to do it.

At 5-foot-10, 186 pounds, Fields’ measurables don’t stand out, but his former coaches believe he’ll test through the roof during draft season.

“He’s got what everybody wants and that’s speed. He can fly,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Pound for pound, he’s going to be one of the strongest guys at his position. He’s not a long guy but he’s strong and he’s got great feet and explosiveness. You saw him come into the national championship game and make two of the bigger plays in the game down the stretch.

“He’s a legit cover guy, and it’s what everyone’s looking for.”

Fields planted himself on the NFL’s radar following a standout performance against Alabama in the College Football Championship Game, which he parlayed into a late invitation to the Senior Bowl.

Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl’s executive director, said his goal is to invite players with something to prove — whether that’s a small-school player who needs to prove his productivity against tougher competition, or a draft-worthy talent without a lot of tape.

He described Fields as the latter, although his delayed invitation isn’t a reflection of the NFL’s growing interest.

“He was a guy that we were interested in the whole fall just because he does have the talent,” Nagy said. “He’s got pure cover ability.

“He’s not starting, so there’s not a lot of tape. Everyone knows what the talent level is, there’s just not a lot to go on. We’re trying to give him a platform to showcase what he can do.”

Flashing at Hough

NFL teams might be getting their first look at Fields but his cover skills have been evident since high school. Like most future pro athletes, he was clearly more athletic than most of his peers. Even as an incoming freshman at Hough High in Cornelius he believed he could play college football — but he didn’t want to rely on athleticism, alone, to get him there.

His preparation was a two-step process. First, he needed to perfect his fundamentals. His footwork. Transitioning his weight out of a backpedal at full speed. His press technique.

It didn’t happen overnight but once he put it together, it was clear just how talented he was.

“Mechanically, he’s as sound of a football player as you want to see,” said ChaChi Sullivan, Fields’ position coach at Hough. “It was instilled in him at an early age that technique was going to take him further than the athleticism. A lot of times he would rely on his athleticism but I’ve watched him over time just get fundamentally sound.

“It got to a point where it just wasn’t fair for some of the other kids to compete with, especially on the high school level.”

Step two for Fields forced him out of his comfort zone. He’d reached a point where he wasn’t being challenged in man coverage, which Sullivan said Hough’s staff set out to change.

“He was a lot faster than the average kid, stronger than the average kid, but as he got stronger and faster, he added some things,” Sullivan said. “Mark never had an interest in playing off-man because he was so good at playing press technique. I would really say his biggest transition was learning how to be the complete defensive back where he could press or play off.

“He was so good at playing press man that it didn’t challenge him, so we’d try to incorporate a lot of off-technique.”

Clemson cornerback Mark Fields (2) played in a rotation with two other NFL draft prospects, so he doesn’t have as much film as some others. But he has coverage ability. Rainier Ehrhardt AP

At Clemson, goals

Fields continued that progression at Clemson, playing behind or alongside Mackensie Alexander, Ryan Carter, A.J. Terrell and potential 2018 first-rounder Trayvon Mullen. He was one of five defensive starters to return to school for the 2018 season, which Fields said he did to both improve his draft stock and win a second national championship.

He also needed to prove he could stay on the field for a full season after battling injuries throughout his career.

He missed three games in 2018, too, but Swinney and Fields agreed his decision to return to Clemson paid off.

“I think he needed to be healthy. He had some injuries. I just think he needed to mature,” Swinney said. “He needed to grow and mature as a player — and he did that. He was a rotation guy with two probably first-round talents in Trayvon and A.J. and played his role well.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be drafted and give somebody a heck of a cover corner. In that league, it comes down to matchups and if you can’t play man coverage, you can’t play — and he can do that.”

The Carolina Panthers have bigger team needs than cornerback, but bolstering their secondary should be on their to-do list, whether through free agency or the draft.

If they were to call Fields’ name come draft weekend, he’d be the second Mark Fields to don a Panthers jersey. His father made the Pro Bowl as a linebacker in 2005 after sitting out a season with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It would mean a lot to me if Carolina gave me that call,” he said. “My pops was a great player there and it would be an honor just to represent that organization. It would be a great honor.”

Inside, or out?

To get that honor, he’ll have to answer one thing that’s still in question: His position.

He’ll play cornerback, but some are torn whether he projects inside on slot receivers or on the outside. One AFC scout told the Observer he had graded Fields as an undrafted free agent before upgrading him to the seventh round after seeing his tape from the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. The same scout also said he likes Fields “as a nickel more than outside corner.”

Swinney said Fields is more of a true outside corner who could possibly transition to nickel, and Nagy believes his position depends on his team’s scheme.

Fields himself predictably believes he can play either spot and the teams he’s spoken with appreciate his versatility.

“I can play inside and outside,” he said. “My game can adjust to both so wherever they want to play me, I’ll be fine playing that.

“I spoke with a lot of teams and just continue to rise. I’ve really just been doing what I need to do, showing them my versatility as well as playing special teams. I’ve talked with a lot of teams and they like what I bring to the table, so I’ve just got to continue to do what I do.”

Sullivan’s answer: Fields is neither a nickel corner or an outside corner.

He’s a cover corner.

“It would suit him better to cover the other team’s best receiver, whether they play him outside or inside,” he said. “People get caught up with all the height and length, but football is about being in position. You can take a lot of 6-foot-2, 6-foot-1 guys that can’t get in the position he’s in … To me, he’s a guy who’s able to do both.”

And this week, he has another chance to prove it.

Marcel Louis-Jacques covers the Carolina Panthers for the Charlotte Observer, keeping you on top of Panthers news both on the field and behind the scenes. He is a 2014 graduate of Arizona State University and grew up in Sacramento, California.