On March 6, 2020, Tony Fields II stood in the north end zone at Arizona Stadium and couldn’t stop giggling.
The Arizona Wildcats had just completed their fourth practice of spring. They were about to enjoy a welcome break. Fields, a three-year starting linebacker, was asked if his new teammate, Brenden Schooler, reminded him of Colin Schooler, Brenden’s younger brother and Fields’ friend, classmate and fellow linebacker.
Cue the giggling.
“They’re identical,” Fields finally snorted.
Fields seemed happy; he had no reason not to be. He and Colin Schooler were about to play one final season together as the lynchpins of new coordinator Paul Rhoads’ defense. Brenden Schooler would be joining them after transferring from Oregon. Life was good.
Then life as we knew it changed profoundly.
The coronavirus pandemic swept through the United States. The entire sporting world was shut down. The Wildcats never resumed spring practice. Fields never would play another down for the UA.
A little over four months later, with the state of the 2020 season uncertain, Fields entered the NCAA transfer portal. In early August, he signed with West Virginia.
It turned out to be a prudent business decision.
The Mountaineers played close to a full season. Fields was named the Big 12 Conference Defensive Newcomer of the Year. He was also a first-team all-league selection after pacing the Big 12 with 88 tackles in nine games.
Arizona ended up playing five games. The Wildcats didn’t win any of them. Kevin Sumlin was fired at the end of the abbreviated season. The entire on-field staff was let go.
By transferring to West Virginia and excelling at a new position (middle linebacker), Fields undoubtedly raised his stock for the NFL draft, which began Thursday. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler had him as the 14th-ranked off-ball linebacker in the 2021 class, projected to be a fourth- or fifth-round pick. ESPN’s Todd McShay ranked Fields as the No. 16 inside linebacker.
Fields planned to watch the draft with his family in Las Vegas. Whenever his name is called, he will consider himself a representative of two schools — Arizona and West Virginia. Fields proudly donned the logos of both universities on his helmet at the Senior Bowl.
“I rep Arizona to the fullest,” said Fields, who attended the UA’s spring game Saturday. “I graduated from there, and I will always be a Wildcat. West Virginia helped me, and I’m forever thankful for them as well. I’m a Mountaineer and a Wildcat from here on out.”
The Star recently spoke to Fields about his time at the UA — where he compiled 287 tackles in 37 games — his prescient move to West Virginia and his preparation for the draft. The conversation has been lightly edited.
How were you able to see the future? Nothing was official about the Pac-12 season when you entered the portal in mid-July.
A: “Being in the locker room, you always hear things before the real world hears things. I kind of heard through the grapevine that the Pac-12 wasn’t playing or (was) thinking about not playing. We had a lot of guys who were already opting out because of the COVID issue. It was honestly looking like football wasn’t gonna happen. I wanted to play football. And on the other side of the country, on the East Coast, they never questioned it. So that’s why I felt like I had to go.”
Did any other factors play into your decision?
A: “No. I loved the school. I was a three-year starter there. I loved the program. I’m still an alumni. It was just a chance for me to move on and showcase my skill set and get to the next level.”
What’s the biggest thing that you took away from your experience here?
A: “I grew as a person so much. I really developed, physically, mentally, and I just learned how to be my own self, to be my own person without my parents. So, just a lot of growth.”
The team went through a lot of adversity during your time here. How might that help you in the future?
A: “I understand the fact that everything’s not always going to be perfect. But there’s always a brighter light as long as you work hard. That’s how we treated our seasons at Arizona. We never gave up. We kept going.”
Did you have any idea where Morgantown, West Virginia was before you went out there?
A: “I knew where it was on a map, but I’d never been to Morgantown. It was pretty cold. It was different. It was a good experience. It changed me and developed me. ... That’s how I took it: ‘I’ll be in the cold, but I might have to be in the cold next year. I might get drafted to the Green Bay Packers or the (Minnesota) Vikings. I’m preparing myself for the real world.’
“It was another way to develop as a man. I’ve never driven in snow. I’ve always been on West Coast time, so I had to change my sleeping habits so I could wake up earlier. I changed my eating habits. I the changed way I went (about) my day. I really treated the season like the pros so I can go into next year already ready.”
How will playing middle linebacker last year help your draft stock?
A: “I’ve played both positions (Fields primarily played weak-side linebacker here), and now the coaches know that I can be the play-caller. I went out there, learned the playbook within two weeks ... and I feel like I ran the defense pretty good for the most part.”
Your game seems well-suited to the NFL, which values defenders who can play in space. If there’s a knock against you, it’s your size. (Fields is 6 feet tall and recently boosted his weight from 222 to 232 pounds). How do you respond to that slight?
A: “I really take it with a grain of salt. People can call you undersized any day, anytime. But if you step up against me, I bet I won’t feel undersized.
“Darius Leonard, he shows it the most for the Colts. He’s undersized (listed at 6-2, 230). He doesn’t look like it on the field. Seeing him as a smaller guy, being in the NFL and lasting in the NFL, he just gives me more confidence knowing that I can go in there and do the same thing.”
What has the pre-draft process been like?
A: “It’s been great. It’s been long. (There have) been a lot of different people I’ve met and talked to. I’ve gotten advice from all 32 coaches. So that’s pretty cool.
“I’ve learned a lot. That’s really what this process is about. My parents always taught me to be a sponge, so I’m learning as much as I can.”
Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or email@example.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev