COLUMBUS, Ohio — As he watched film of the sophomore quarterback from Gainesville, Ga., Urban Meyer couldn’t help but become enamored.
Deshaun Watson would have been the perfect quarterback for the Ohio State head coach’s spread offense.
“Not a good player,” Meyer recalled of Watson earlier this week. “A great player.”
Meyer made his pitch: Come be a Buckeye and rule the football world. For the likely three seasons that would comprise his college career, Watson and Ohio State could be mainstays in the national championship picture.
The sales call came to no avail.
“We tried to get involved,” Meyer said of his failed recruitment of Watson, who committed to Clemson in February 2012. “He committed early, early, early.”
His prophecy, however, has since played out — at least partially. Two years after the Buckeyes won the first College Football Playoff and a season after the Tigers played the part of runner-up, Ohio State and Clemson will clash in this postseason’s Fiesta Bowl playoff semifinal.
For Meyer, that means a matchup with the rare prospect who he never seemed to have much of a chance with.
“It was over,” he insists. But that didn’t stop the Buckeyes head coach from trying.
In fact, Ohio State was so hopeful that Watson would have a change of heart that the Buckeyes were willing to throw their entire 2014 recruiting cycle off kilter.
In each class since Meyer arrived at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have signed at least one quarterback. For Meyer’s third haul, he and then-offensive coordinator Tom Herman wanted that player to be Watson, a 5-star prospect who ranked as the No. 1 dual-threat signal-caller in the 2014 class.
So much so, that the Buckeyes waited until May 2013 to offer a scholarship to any other quarterback in the 2014 cycle. In the relationships-based business that is recruiting, that meant Ohio State had less than a year to woo its Plans A, B, or C to Columbus. In the cases of Kyle Allen, Brandon Harris and Zack Darlington, the Buckeyes’ offers came too late.
Ohio State eventually secured a commitment from 3-star prospect Stephen Collier, the 17th-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class, following an impressive summer camp showing.
Essentially, the Buckeyes had gone all in with Watson.
The way Meyer talks about it now, you would think the Buckeyes never stood much of a shot when it came to their attempt to lure Watson to Columbus. “(Clemson) did a good job locking him down, I want to say, his sophomore year in high school,” Meyer says.
Only Meyer’s not giving himself enough credit.
As he became one the country’s most prominent head coaches at Florida in the mid-2000s, Meyer found a fan in Watson. And when Meyer instantly turned quarterback Braxton Miller into a Heisman Trophy candidate at Ohio State during the start of Watson’s recruitment, the Peach State product took notice.
“I always wanted to meet Urban Meyer,” Watson told ESPN.com’s Kipp Adams in late-2012. “I was a big Gators fan when he was at Florida. With what he has done with quarterbacks in the spread and taking Ohio State to an undefeated season. I told them I plan to come spend a couple days up there this summer. Seeing Braxton Miller this year, Tim Tebow before and knowing that under Meyer I have a chance to compete for a Heisman means a lot.”
So perhaps the Buckeyes had a better chance at landing Watson than Meyer is letting on. And it makes sense Ohio State wouldn’t give up hope, with Watson’s primary recruiter at Clemson, offensive coordinator and now SMU head coach Chad Morris, constantly rumored for head coaching jobs at the time.
Not to mention, Watson was worth the gamble.
But when it came to the Buckeyes’ attempt to woo Watson, the Tigers’ home field advantage was too much to overcome. It also didn’t help that come 2014, Clemson possessed an immediate need for a starting quarterback, while Miller returned to Ohio State for his senior season.
Obviously, Watson’s decision has worked out well for all involved — even Ohio State. As Clemson has made two straight playoffs behind the play of their two-time Heisman finalist quarterback, the Buckeyes have sustained success thanks to their 2013 QB signee, J.T. Barrett.
The two starting quarterbacks in the upcoming Fiesta Bowl have even maintained a relationship throughout their respective high-profile college careers.
“He’s one of the good friends of mine. Quarterbacks, we oftentimes are a tight circle,” Barrett says. “I texted him. I said,’ I’ll see you in Arizona, brother.’ He’s like, ‘All right, let’s get it.'”
Had Meyer had his way, the two would have been competing with one another on a much more consistent basis by now.