SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One guy just wasn’t enough.
Preparing for the dynamic, overflowing set of skills Deshaun Watson brings to the field required at least three different players to give Ohio State the looks it needed to gear up for Clemson’s star quarterback.
The Buckeyes had a strong-armed passer they could use for a decent impression of his ability to beat opponents through the air. The scrambling required a bit more speed, though, so the Buckeyes turned a reserve defensive back into the freewheeling version of Watson. Then there was a physical presence between the tackles that couldn’t be duplicated as easily, so a walk-on quarterback took on the thankless task of handling the inside running game.
Obviously there wasn’t a spare Heisman Trophy finalist just laying around to lead the scout team for the Buckeyes, so the practice looks certainly aren’t going to be identical to what they see on Saturday in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. But they’ve done everything they can to mimic all the ways Watson can attack a defense, no matter how many guys it took.
“We’ve had everything,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “We’ve had [freshman] Dwayne Haskins throwing the ball, because he’s got a cannon. We’ve had [safety] Eric Glover-Williams scrambling. We’ve done a lot of things, just to get all types of looks and get prepared for everything.
“They told us yesterday that we’ve had over 750 Clemson snaps or something like that from the scout team. We’ve been going hard.”
The Buckeyes have also been going at it for nearly a month since the College Football Playoff pairings were announced, giving them plenty of time to get creative as they look for ways to slow down one of the most productive passers in the country.
A few extra orange No. 4 jerseys were required as well as Urban Meyer scoured his roster for players who could provide a passable match for Watson, picking and choosing to find the right fit based on certain situations. That work extended beyond just the quarterback, with Ohio State bringing in former NFL receiver Brian Hartline to help test the defensive backs and during certain practice periods taking starting wideouts away from their normal offensive routine to go head-to-head against the first-string defense.
Everything eventually gets back to Watson, who could provide the biggest test of the season for Ohio State’s talent-laden, ball-hawking defense.
“The head coach does all that [setting up the scout team],” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “Because the No. 1 core value on the plan to win is play great defense. He knows we have to play great defense to be successful, and if that means taking the wideouts away from the offense for 10 minutes so they can come down and do the things we need to do, they’ll do it.
“We’re going to do the best thing we can, and the offense is going to do everything possible to give us the opportunity to do that. Our ability to put our guys in those situations against really, really good football players is what is going to build their confidence.”
There’s also a potential benefit for a former four-star recruit such as Haskins to generate some momentum of his own, with the Buckeyes seeing flashes of Watson in his game and giving him a chance to make plays against a star-studded defense in practice. And Ohio State players and coaches have raved about his arm and playmaking ability after facing off against him for a month.
The development of Haskins certainly isn’t the priority right now for the Buckeyes. As long as he can look a bit like the guy they’re getting ready to face on New Year’s Eve, that’s all that matters at this point.
“I guess [it’s flattering],” Watson said. “We have a lot of guys who are trying to simulate what they do on defense, too. It’s not going to be the same, because everyone is different.
“You can only assume what they’re going to do and how they play, but you don’t really realize it until you get out there on the field.”
The real thing will be waiting out there for the Buckeyes on Saturday. And Clemson only needs one guy to handle his role.