Opinion: Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins keeps his cool, tunes out talk of slide in NFL draft

Jarrett Bell

What a prelude to the NFL pressure cooker waiting for Dwayne Haskins.

The former Ohio State quarterback could drive himself silly if he took to heart everything that has been declared, projected, suspected and dissected during this NFL draft process.

Then again, Haskins summarized, “It’s been crazy … but it’s what I asked for.”

Let the initiation roll on. Haskins, 21, is the big-armed guy who passed for an NCAA-best 4,831 yards and 50 TDs in his only season as a starter, yet suddenly is pegged by some as a picture of sliding stock.

He has surely caught wind of the negative narrative: He started just one year for the Buckeyes; he doesn’t possess elite athleticism, like Kyler Murray, who is destined to be selected No. 1 overall on Thursday by  Arizona; two other quarterbacks, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Duke’s Daniel Jones, have supposedly gained enough ground that they rate higher than Haskins on draft boards for some teams.

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Regardless, if Haskins (6-3, 220) is unnerved by this stuff – sometimes fueled by various agendas, this time of year -- he won’t stand a chance against scrutiny as the face of an NFL franchise. Good thing he sounds like a man aiming to ace another test … with fresh fuel.

“No adversity will ever break me,” Haskins told USA TODAY Sports over the weekend. “When you play quarterback, you have to have tough skin. The biggest thing I’ve learned – I knew it before this process – is that there are a lot of outside distractions. You just have to keep your focus.”

Still, he’s human. Wouldn’t he want to take some sort of pulse of the perceptions?

 “I don’t pay attention to it,” he insisted. “Now, my friends have been asking me. My mom is like, ‘Did you see what they said?’ The biggest thing is to do what I have to do. Do well in meetings. Do well with the visits. Throw the ball well. I know I’m going to be a great NFL quarterback.”

Greatness, earned more than declared, can be tough to predict. Yet there’s no denying that with the tools to be great, Haskins is one of the most intriguing story lines in the draft.

 A few years ago, he was living with former all-pro cornerback Shawn Springs (a Buckeye alum) during a transition period as his family moved from New Jersey to the Washington, D.C., area to seek better high school competition. So, he’s had a rather impressive NFL mentor to tap along the way. Now it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll wind up back in New Jersey with the Giants, who pick sixth in the draft.

Springs, whose post-football career includes heading a company, Windpact, that is at the forefront of technology to make safer helmets, met Haskins several years ago when the quarterback was at a camp in New Jersey with one of his twin sons. He saw his son Skyler throw a football maybe 30 yards, then Haskins stepped up and spun it 50 yards.

 “I was like, ‘Whoa! Who is this? Why is there a JV player with the sixth graders?’ “ Springs recalled, adding he was further impressed that the kid hit targets in the numbers on timing routes.

The next day, Springs met the kid’s father, Dwayne, Sr., which began what evolved into a tight bond with the entire family. Springs quickly discovered that the Haskins family is deeply spiritual, believing as he remembers Dwayne Sr. telling him, “I know God put you in our lives for a reason.”

No, it’s not because God is a Buckeye. Springs insists he didn’t peg Haskins to attend his alma mater from the get-go, thinking he’d wind up at Maryland after his prep career at the Bullis School about a half hour from the Terps' campus. Regardless, Springs been the ultimate resource – from teaching Haskins how to watch film in middle school to sorting through agents (he picked David Mulugheta) as he prepared to turn pro, with much in between.

And if you know Springs (just as boisterous as his late father, Ron, a former Cowboys fullback and Ohio State product), you can hear him repeating constant themes about the NFL being a “lifestyle” and that mental toughness is essential in order to be “a big dog.”

Said Haskins, “He’s been there before.”

Springs swears that of all the quarterbacks that he played with during his 13-year NFL career, only two were better equipped than Haskins: Tom Brady and Warren Moon.

Gulp. Talk about adding pressure.

Haskins has heard all about Brady’s work ethic and attempts to seek an extra edge, like the time the Patriots quarterback scanned the notebook that Springs kept on D-coordinator Gregg Williams as they rode the bus to the stadium.

“I told him that Tom was always the first one in the building to show up for work,” Springs said.

That’s striking when considering what Trent Dilfer says about Haskins. The onetime Super Bowl winner said that of all the studs who have come through the Elite 11 quarterback competition that he coaches, Haskins most resembles Brady in his approach to the game.

“He’s very academic, very competitive,” Dilfer said. “His processing ability is elite. He’ll figure out the ins and outs of a game the most. In talking to Urban Meyer … what he did with protections at Ohio State was amazing. That’s a lot of what the NFL is.”

Some will tell you that the future of the NFL can be found in athletic talents like Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Sure, the game and the thinking has evolved to break the mold of what was once the prototypical quarterback. But there’s still a place in the league for a cerebral quarterback who can dissect a defense with his mind better than with his mobility.

I mean, while teams seem to be clamoring the find the next Mahomes, the reigning NFL MVP, just count all of Brady’s Super Bowl rings.

 “It’s comical, every year, to see how shallow the evaluation process can become,” Dilfer said, pondering the questions of Haskins’ stock. “There’s a bunch of different ways to be successful. If a guy can pass and process, that’s going to work in the NFL. And for a long time. That’s what Dwayne Haskins is … for a long time.”

 Springs would surely second that motion, but in the days before the draft he seems rather antsy when considering how all the pre-draft buzz will ultimately affect Haskins’ stock. This is one thing where Springs can’t draw on his own experience. When he came out in 1997, he was drafted third overall by the Seahawks.

 “I’m baffled,” Springs said, adding that he’s had no luck in tapping sources around the league to ease anxiety about where Haskins will land.

Then listen to Haskins, a deep thinker who prides himself on seeing the big picture.

“I’m not nervous at all,” he maintained. Rather than attend the draft in Nashville, Haskins will host a draft party at a bowling alley in the D.C. area – as was planned all along – to share the moment with dozens, if not hundreds of others, who have had a role.

“Whenever I’m drafted or wherever I go, I know God’s plan is bigger than I can imagine. I’m here on this Earth to leave a legacy, whether I’m drafted first, second, third or 42nd.”

Haskins doesn’t dare play the guessing game. Is he destined to join Jon Gruden with the Raiders? Or maybe he’ll land with the Dolphins? Or what about coming back to the DMV and connecting with Doug Williams on one of Springs’ former teams?

During the combine, he visited with 13 teams. Since his pro day, three teams – Washington, Denver and the Giants -- brought him in for “top 30” visits. The Raiders and Dolphins went to Ohio State for workouts and visits.

“The draft is something crazy,” Haskins said. “My agent told me some people have been drafted by teams that they didn’t even visit with. So, you never really know.”

Of course, he’s ready for whatever. That’s why he wore a classic John Elway No. 7 jersey to his visit to the Broncos’ headquarters and meeting with Elway. That’s one way to break the ice.

“People may think I’m crazy for doing it,” said Haskins, who also wore No. 7 in college. “To me, it was showing how much I respected him. I wanted to pay homage.

“Plus, I’ve always wanted to be a trend-setter.”

 Well, the stage is being set for the chance to do just that.