DALLAS (AP) — Stephen Collier is feeling kind of special.
Everyone has been calling him Marcus. A few teammates have taped pictures of the Heisman Trophy to his locker. When someone offers faux congratulations, he plays right along.
“Thank you,” Ohio State’s freshman quarterback said Saturday, cocking his head and breaking into a big smile. “I really appreciate that.”
Of course, there’s only one Marcus Mariota.
Collier is merely playing his own version of the imitation game for the Buckeyes scout team, donning a No. 8 jersey at practice and doing his best to resemble the best quarterback in the nation.
It’s a thankless, daunting task, but one that every scout teamer knows so well. Their job is to be someone else. They’ll surely play a big role in Monday night’s national championship game — even if none of them plays a down for Ohio State or Oregon.
The real Mariota certainly appreciates his own guys.
“Without those guys, we wouldn’t be able to have the looks we need and prepare the way we do,” Mariota said. “Those guys have done an incredible job for us all year.”
As the guy portraying Mariota, Collier had one of the most crucial roles at Ohio State’s practices. Likewise for Oregon running back Tony James, who landed the role of Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones.
That’s a real stretch, since the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones is like a linebacker trapped inside a quarterback’s body. “I’m nowhere near that,” said James, who is 8 inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter.
But the Ducks felt he had the best chance of replicating Jones’ dual threats, combining what very well could be the strongest arm in the country with an ability to run right over people.
“I have a decent arm,” James said confidently.
Most scout teams are an odd mix of top recruits who aren’t quite ready to play and walk-ons who are unlikely to ever get a shot at significant time. The challenge of keeping all these guys motivated usually falls to graduate assistants and coaching interns such as Ohio State’s Vince Oghobaase.
He dubbed his scout teamers the “Goon Squad,” calling them a rough-and-tumble bunch that is more than willing to take on bigger, stronger, faster players in practice. To get them fired up for their work leading to the title game, he handed out T-shirts with the slogan “Smack The Quack.”
“It’s all about creative motivation,” Oghobaase said. “That gave them a boost of energy and that much more confidence to go out and provide the looks that we need. Doing the same thing over and over and over can be kind of redundant to guys, but they know they’re doing it for a purpose and doing for their teammates. They may not play on Saturdays. They may not play two years down the road. But they’re still helping us win the game.”
During the regular season, scout team coaches must be especially adept at time management. There’s plenty of advance scouting, looking at not only the next opponent but the one beyond that so they can get right to work on Sundays. They have to decide who’s best suited to play each role, meet with the players to discuss what the opponent is likely to do, and start going over film of individual tendencies.
For Oregon’s Shawn Young, an intern who works with defense and special teams, the key is coming up with a plan that his players can quickly comprehend.
“As long as you can communicate what you need to do and try to use the same terminology we may use in our vernacular, then it’s so much easier for them to pick it up,” Young said.
It also helps when they’re assigned to be an especially prominent player.
“The kids love it when you give them an identity,” Young said. “You’ll tell them, ‘You’re (Ohio State star running back) Ezekiel Elliott. You’ve got to run hard today. You’ve got to hit that hole.’ “
Even so, James struggled at first with the idea of doing his best work during the week, when no one but his coaches and teammates could appreciate it.
“I’ve been used to starting everywhere I’ve been. But once you get used to not playing,” the freshman said, pausing to consider his words, “well, I wouldn’t say you get used to it, but you learn to deal with it. You know your time is coming.”
Even though the coaches try to keep spirits up — Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, for instance, recognizes a scout teamer at practice every week — there’s no sugar-coating that most of these guys won’t get into the game.
Take Oregon tight end Jake McCreath, a redshirt sophomore. He played in a season-opening rout of South Dakota — and didn’t get into another game until New Year’s Day, when he got to play most of the fourth quarter in the Rose Bowl rout of Florida State. In between, he’s played all sorts of roles on the scout team, everything from H-back to offensive line.
“There’s a lot of down time during the season,” said McCreath, who has twice been named the Ducks’ special team player of the week. “But to get into the Rose Bowl was very rewarding.”
And if he should play again in the title game?
“That,” McCreath said, “would be awesome.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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