They emerged from their burrows a few weeks early, saw something resembling their shadows and scurried back to the warmth of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, hunkering down for at least 40 more weeks of Ohio State football.
Or maybe it wasn’t their own shade that made Ohio State receivers Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon and K.J. Hill, plus hybrid back Parris Campbell and tailback Mike Weber, decide to return for another season of the Urban Meyer Show rather than take their talents to the NFL.
My guess it had more to do with seeing the silhouette of Dwayne Haskins Jr., the probable starting quarterback in 2018.
Haskins is a look-to-pass quarterback. His predecessor, J.T. Barrett, was a run-first QB. Can Barrett throw? Can a dog swim? Yes, but …
If you watched last week’s College Football Playoff championship game between Alabama and Georgia, and given the ratings in Columbus — ninth highest nationally and the only city outside the South to rank in the top 15 — you likely did, you not only saw two true freshman quarterbacks who can sling it, but also the Bama starter who cannot sling it get benched at halftime.
Digging deeper, notice that of the previous seven national champions, six started strong-armed quarterbacks in the title game. Clearly, winning it all requires playing a QB who can spin it with something approaching NFL arm strength and accuracy.
But that is only half the equation to consider when determining why the Ohio State players opted to put the NFL on hold. Certainly, the Buckeyes are coming back with hopes of winning a national championship. And, for the moment, their enjoyment of playing for the Buckeyes has trumped their love for playing for the Benjamins.
But equally important is having the chance to play with a quarterback who can get them the football, which in turn should help their statistics and draft status. That is being smart, not selfish. Just as college students who don’t play football want the highest grades to impress future employers, receivers and running backs want more catches and carries to showcase their talent.
Campbell and the other returning skill-position players respect Barrett and appreciate what he did for the program. They also see more opportunity for themselves with J.T. no longer running the offense (emphasis on running).
Barrett averaged 11.8 rushing attempts this season. Haskins should average half as many, leaving more opportunities for passes to be called and receivers to make catches. Even Weber should benefit, despite playing No. 2 to starter J.K. Dobbins. As the downfield passing game advances under Haskins, the running game also will improve.
Now the caveat. For the receivers to catch more passes and tailbacks to gain more running room, Meyer must rethink his offensive tendencies. Barrett’s legs were Meyer’s fallback plan, especially in short-yardage situations. But it goes back farther, to Alex Smith at Utah and Tim Tebow at Florida. Meyer demands three things from his quarterbacks: 1. leadership (the more vocal the better); 2. toughness; and 3. (related to toughness), the ability to pick up first downs with his feet. Strong arm? Not essential.
Haskins checks most of those boxes, but Meyer has said he wants his QB-in-waiting to become more assertive. Can Haskins run? Can a horse swim? Yes, but …
Haskins will be penciled in as the starter entering spring camp. And deservedly so, after he orchestrated the comeback win against Michigan. He likely will continue to hold that spot ahead of Joe Burrow and Tate Martell, who are both better runners, come next fall. At least the Ohio State receivers have to hope so. Haskins is a big reason they chose to return.
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