In one of Ohio State’s early Rose Bowl practices, receiver Terry McLaurin ran a deep corner route and caught a perfectly thrown pass.
It was the kind of throw that Dwayne Haskins Jr. regularly made last season, except Haskins didn’t throw it. Neither did the since-transferred Tate Martell.
The pass came from freshman Matthew Baldwin.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
“Everybody was treating it like it was normal,” McLaurin said. “But I stopped the whole practice and was like, ‘That was a helluva throw, Matt.’ I was just trying to love him up and give him the confidence coming from an older guy. I hope that means a lot going forward for him.”
The Buckeyes might need it to. Baldwin redshirted during the 2018 season as he rehabbed from a torn knee ligament. Only in bowl practice did he see 11-on-11 time.
But with Haskins and Martell gone, and Justin Fields’ status uncertain as he applies for a waiver from the NCAA rule requiring transfers to sit out a year, Baldwin has suddenly become quite important as Ohio State looks to the 2019 season. The Buckeyes began offseason conditioning late last week.
If Fields is granted a waiver — considered likely but not certain — the former five-star prospect will be the front-runner to be the Buckeyes’ starter.
After all, Baldwin was a three-star prospect who started only one year at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, and was committed to Colorado State before Ohio State offered him a scholarship late in his senior season.
None of that matters now, and Baldwin concedes nothing.
“I’m very confident,” he said in the Rose Bowl postgame locker room when it was clear that Fields intended to transfer to Ohio State. “Coach Day didn’t recruit me to come here and sit and watch other guys. That’s my mindset.”
It’s not clear exactly how Ohio State’s offense will change under new coach Ryan Day. Based on Day’s past, it’s likely to be more of a pro-style offense than the pure spread of Urban Meyer. That should be well-suited to Baldwin, who is a capable runner but more of a pocket passer.
Baldwin started for only one season at Lake Travis for a good reason: Its history of producing elite quarterbacks is unsurpassed. Starting in 2006, every Cavaliers starter has played at a Power Five conference school, headlined by Baker Mayfield. Baldwin’s predecessor, Charlie Brewer, is Baylor’s starter.
When Baldwin finally got his shot, he cashed in. He threw 44 touchdown passes with only six interceptions as a senior. He completed almost 72 percent of his passes.
Lake Travis coach Hank Carter said Baldwin’s passing reminds him of the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan. The school’s former offensive coordinator, Michael Wall, compared his passing favorably to every quarterback he has coached, even you-know-who.
“I’ve had the privilege to coach some really good ones in high school, including Baker Mayfield,” said Wall, now head coach at Houston’s Willis High School. “Matthew throws it better than any that I’ve ever coached. He snaps it out of his hand the fastest. He has what I would call the cleanest release. He gets rid of it quickly and efficiently and is extremely accurate.”
A successful quarterback also must have intelligence, leadership and toughness. Carter and Wall raved about those qualities in Baldwin.
“He was so much smarter than all of us coaches were it wasn’t even funny,” Carter said. “A very, very bright kid. I can’t remember what he got on his ACTs, but I probably could have done mine twice and it wouldn’t have been what he had.”
As a leader, Baldwin was on the quiet side. Wall said Baldwin will need to prove he can be more vocal, but both he and Carter said that his teammates rallied around him.
Toughness is not an issue. Baldwin suffered a torn ACL in Lake Travis’ state semifinal victory. Yet he practiced the next week without missing a rep, only to have it give out on the first snap of the championship game.
“He knew he was having surgery anyway,” Carter said. “The doctors told him there weren’t any concerns about making it worse. He wanted to play the state championship and win. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.”
Baldwin is now healthy and ready to prove himself, Fields or no Fields.
“Competition isn’t something I’m afraid of,” Baldwin said. “If you come to Ohio State thinking there’s not going to be competition, you don’t know what you’re doing. I’ll take on the spring with a good mindset.”