Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson take different paths to College Football Playoff
Baker Mayfield grew up in Texas, but he was an Oklahoma Sooners fan. Nothing has come easy for him. He’s had to walk on to not one school, but two. Now he’s Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, ready to start a playoff game.
His counterpart in the Orange Bowl on Thursday at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, took a much more direct approach. The Georgia high school state record-setter had dozens of scholarship offers, spurning SEC suitors Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and LSU to play at Clemson. The top quarterback in the 2014 class set Georgia high school career marks for total yards (17,134), total touchdowns (218), passing yards (13,077) and passing touchdowns (155). Watson also rushed for 4,057 yards and scored 63 rushing touchdowns.
Two different paths, with one goal in mind.
Watson burst onto the scene at Clemson, working into the starting lineup as a true freshman on Sept. 21, 2014. In his first start, Watson broke the school record with six touchdown passes. He threw for 435 yards in a 50-35 victory over North Carolina.
Injured twice that season, Watson limped to the finish line, playing the season finale with a torn ACL. Still, he led the Tigers past SEC arch-rival South Carolina, 35-17.
A healthy Watson came back with a vengeance this season, throwing for an ACC-best 3,517 yards. He also led the conference in pass completion percentage (69.5), passing touchdowns (30), total touchdowns (41), pass completions (287), passing efficiency rating (159.7), and total yards (4,404).
The Heisman Trophy finalist has led Clemson to an undefeated season and a No. 1 ranking nationally. The mobile quarterback has proven to be effective either as a pocket passer or on the run.
“I feel like I’m dangerous either way,” Watson said. “I would say I didn’t throw 3,500 yards for no reason, and they weren’t always outside the pocket. Either way I feel like I’m pretty dangerous, and that’s just the confidence I have in myself and my teammates.”
What puts Watson over the top is his ability to throw the deep ball, a weapon he said was developed at the prep level.
“It just started back in high school, and my coach teaching me how to really control the ball while it’s in the air,” Watson said. “Just over time practicing it and just working on my craft, that’s what I did, and just learning tips and different ways of throwing the ball.
“As I grew up, I’m still trying to master that position, and throwing the deep ball and learn from other guys. You know, it’s still an oncoming thing, but it’s just one of the gifts that I’m happy to have.”
Mayfield’s journey to the College Football Playoff was filled, in contrast, with twists and turns. The first walk-on true freshman to start a season opener at a BCS school, Mayfield’s odyssey began when TCU didn’t come through with a scholarship offer. Signing Day arrived and Mayfield, who turned away other schools in anticipation of an offer from TCU, was left without a place to go.
Now he uses the snub as motivation. He threw for 6,255 yards and 67 touchdowns at Texas high school football power Lake Travis.
“Good coaching,” Mayfield said. “I say it all the time, Texas high school football, people don’t realize outside of it that it’s no joke. It’s a big deal. And then when you get coaches like I had at Lake Travis and then you play other good programs with similar coaches, it develops you very quickly and it gets you going.”
So Mayfield walked on at Texas Tech and like Watson broke a school record in his first start. Mayfield completed a school single-game record 43 passes (60 attempts). He threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns in the game.
Also like Watson, an injury hampered Mayfield’s freshman season and he lost his starting role despite throwing for 2,315 yards (218-for-340) and 12 touchdowns.
Still not offered a scholarship, Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma. Without even notifying Sooners head coach Bob Stoops, Mayfield walked on and after sitting out a year because of NCAA transfer rules, he earned the starting job this season as a junior.
Mayfield wasn’t on the field last season when Clemson put a 40-6 beatdown on the Sooners in the Russell Athletic Bowl. He said he is motivated to turn the tables this season in the Orange Bowl.
“Oh, it’s huge for me,” Mayfield said. “I’m in a spot where now I can actually help my team out on the field and not just from the sideline. It’s huge for me knowing that I’ll be able to put us in a different spot, and hopefully it’ll turn out a little bit better.”
Mayfield has thrown for 3,389 yards, and 35 touchdowns – the most in the Big 12 this season. He also led the conference in pass completion percentage (68.6) and total touchdowns (42).
He’s come a long way since sitting by the phone waiting for that scholarship offer. And he’s led Oklahoma a long way this season since a shocking 24-17 loss to rivals Texas near the midway point in the season. It’s the Sooners’ only loss and Mayfield said the team’s mindset has completely changed since that embarrassment.
“That game, we look back at it, and the tempo we played was not how we wanted to do it, and that’s not how we should play,” Mayfield said. “We need to play at a fast pace and set the tone during the game and it’s that mindset that we should never be stopped, and those rivalry games, they came out and they hit us in the mouth, and we tried to come back late in the game, but it was too late.”
Mayfield and the Sooners are hopeful that it’s not too late to derail Clemson’s undefeated season. But Watson is on a roll and putting up a road block to stop him will be a difficult task, one that no team has yet to find a way to accomplish.