It’s been easy to overlook Dwayne Haskins in 2018, in everything from his best games to his Heisman candidacy. His team’s poor defense distracted from his big arm, and the morning after he was officially named a finalist for college football’s most prestigious award, his coach, the third-winningest in the history of the game, announced his retirement. Spotlight, co-opted.
There are a lot of things to bemoan about Ohio State on the field in 2018: a 29-point loss to Purdue that cost it a playoff berth, a one-point win over Maryland in overtime, an average of 25.7 points allowed per game. But the lack of appreciation for Haskins has been almost as disappointing.
Haskins isn’t the first great quarterback to excel with a bad defense and off-field strife working against him. But Ohio State in 2018 was very, very good—good enough to be ranked No. 6 in the final College Football Playoff rankings—and it was almost entirely due to Haskins, in his first year as a starter. Just look at the numbers: The 6'3", 220-pound redshirt sophomore, who has yet to announce if he’ll leave for the NFL, finished the season with 47 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is fifth-best among FBS quarterbacks, and no one threw for as many yards as Haskins’s 4,580. Even attempting the volume of passes he did—496 total, second only to Gardner Minshew’s 613—Haskins averaged 9.2 yards per attempt, eighth-best in the FBS. He may not be as mobile as Tua Tagovailoa or Kyler Murray, but if you’re looking for the best arm of 2018, Haskins is your guy.
He’s also a longshot for the Heisman; current odds have him at +2500 to Tagovailoa’s +120 and Murray’s -160. But if this is the last we’ll see of Haskins in college—or even if it isn’t—the résumé he put together this season deserves its moment of recognition, before someone else gets the Heisman and the playoff starts and all of a sudden, it’s 2019.
Last week, Haskins was named the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year, due in large part to the single-season conference records he set for passing yards and touchdowns. Haskins cemented those numbers with a lights-out end to the season; over Ohio State’s final three games, he had a passer rating of 233.4, and he also rushed for three touchdowns—of two, one and five yards—in an overtime win at Maryland. Against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 1, his 499 passing yards were the eighth-most of any quarterback in a single game this year, and that day, he averaged more yards per attempt—12.17—than any other quarterback in a 450-plus-yard day in 2018. That statistic, obscure as it may seem, encapsulates Haskins: Even as he racks up throws, his accuracy and efficiency don’t waver.
The season started off well for the player tasked with replacing program legend J.T. Barrett, despite Meyer’s three-game suspension throwing even more upheaval into August. It was hardly the ideal circumstance for a big-name player to debut as a starter for a big-time school, but Haskins seemed immune to the Buckeyes’ early-season, off-field circus. While Meyer was away from the sideline, Haskins completed 66 of 91 passes for 11 touchdowns and one interception and set an early tone of calm within the pocket. (He has struggled under pressure, typical of a player with his limited experience, but Ohio State’s line went a long way in easing that concern.) He hit a season-high against Tulane in Week 4 when he completed 87.5% of his passes, but as the season’s midpoint approached, Haskins had his version of a slump. Against Penn State, he was about as inaccurate as he’d been all year but still got a win, and in games against Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska, the Buckeyes’ defense faltered. Haskins was good enough to win all but the Purdue game, but his numbers weren’t what they’d been, and he fell to the fringes of the Heisman race.
It seemed like he might need another year to develop before going pro—and he still might decide that’s what he wants—but in November, Haskins erased any doubt that he could play at the next level in 2019. Just look at what he did against Michigan, a defense stocked with future NFL players: Yes, Ohio State’s skill players were phenomenal in man-to-man coverage, giving Haskins plenty of help with the huge numbers he put up, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that he demolished perhaps the country’s best defense to the tune of 396 passing yards and six touchdowns.
It’s unlikely that Haskins will offer information about his future before the Rose Bowl, as new coach Ryan Day, promoted from offensive coordinator on the day Meyer stepped away, attempts to sway him to stay and the Buckeyes ride out Meyer’s final days. But if Haskins plays like he has recently come New Year’s Day, Heisman in hand or not, the chatter about him being the first quarterback off the board in April will only get louder—deservedly so.