Dwayne Haskins' first name starts with the same letter as the man Ohio State's defense is set to face in the biggest game of the season. So it is only fitting he gets to put on a scout team jersey with the same number as Deshaun Watson as the Buckeyes prepare for the Fiesta Bowl.
“We have Dwayne playing him a little bit. There’s a number of guys switching in there a little bit, but Dwayne, he’s been slinging it lately,” linebacker Jerome Baker said on Thursday at Ohio State Media Day. “He’s definitely a good look.”
Bowl practices allow for young players to get more snaps and practice time without classes and other school responsibilities filling their time. Winter break at Ohio State began on Thursday and the Buckeyes are nearly two weeks out from facing Watson and No. 2 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Eve as part of the College Football Playoff. The thing that is interesting about the Buckeyes this season, though, is their players that lack experience own a host of the starting positions. That is what happens when you have to replace 16 starters and 12 NFL Draft picks from a year ago.
Except at quarterback. Redshirt junior J.T. Barrett is the man at that position and redshirt freshman Joe Burrow shadows him and works with the second team offense in order to be ready as the backup. So for now, it is on Haskins to act as the Heisman Trophy runner-up in order to prepare one of the nation's best defenses to face one of its best offenses.
Easy enough, right? Not really. But Haskins is thriving.
“He can throw. He's a great thrower,” cornerback Marshon Lattimore said, adding that Haskins doesn't look like a true freshman. “Not when he throws the ball, no. He's a great thrower.”
Tim Beck revealed that Burrow had to leave practice early on Wednesday to take his last final exam and close out Autumn Semester. As the team period of practice wound down, Haskins stepped into the huddle with the second team offense and performed well.
“I like Dwayne, Dwayne Haskins has had an opportunity to get more reps,” Beck said. “But even like [Wednesday] Joe had a final and had to miss a little bit at the end. Dwayne got an opportunity to go in there. It's really good work for him. I love what I see out of him and what he's doing. That's always a good positive to be able to see that.”
It is impossible and frankly unfair to ask a true freshman to completely replicate someone of Watson's caliber. The Clemson quarterback finished second in the voting for the most prestigious award in the sport this season and third two years ago. Baker even joked that Haskins isn't nearly what Watson is as a runner—“He tries to be,” the linebacker said with a laugh.
But that isn't Haskins' job during bowl practice. It is to throw the ball all over the field like Watson does to his bevy of receivers and get defenders like Lattimore, Baker and the rest of Ohio State's pass defense ready to face its stiffest challenge yet.
“He’s definitely getting better,” Baker said of Haskins. “These past few practices, he’s been throwing like a maniac. He’s good.”
It's not like the Buckeyes didn't know Haskins could throw the ball well. A former 4-star recruit and one-time Maryland commit, when he and Keandre Jones flipped from the Terrapins to Ohio State on Jan. 18 as part 12-star Monday, the reaction from the program was sublime.
Wow! Big Day— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) January 18, 2016
Wide receiver Binjimen Victor, another 4-star recruit from Florida, also committed that day. The 12 recruiting stars that filled up Ohio State's board for its 2016 class set the foundation for a successful future in Columbus. Now those players are getting a chance to practice without a care or worry in the world and with essentially a full year already under their belts.
“He’s made some big deep throws,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said of Haskins, before adding he's had some success down the field with Victor in practice. “They’ve been hooking up pretty well.”
So while the chances that Haskins (or even Burrow) play against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl are small, the true freshman from Maryland is making his presence felt while imitating one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
“Dwayne is a very talented young man and he has been, we knew that. A lot of times as the third-string quarterback, during the season, they don't get many reps,” Beck said. “But yet they have to be engaged in the game plan so sometimes it's hard to sit on the scout team because he's a play away from being the backup. So some weeks he doesn't do a lot. This week we're using him there. Obviously, the defensive guys get to see him. Joe had a final the other day, had to miss the last part of practice and Dwayne got a chance to go with the twos and looked really well. The future is definitely bright with Dwayne and Joe and obviously J.T. next year.”