As Ohio State prepares to hold a three-way competition for the starting quarterback job this spring, we’re taking a closer look at each of the three talented but inexperienced signal-callers who will be vying to lead the Buckeyes’ offense.
First up in this three-part series: C.J. Stroud.
In a span of less than six months during the second half of 2019, C.J. Stroud went from being an unheralded three-star recruit to the most coveted quarterback recruit in the country.
Coming out of his junior year at Rancho Cucamonga High School, Stroud wasn’t even ranked among the top 500 prospects in the recruiting class of 2020. Though he had received offers from more than a dozen Football Bowl Subdivision programs, Stroud was far from a household name nationally, and wasn’t being targeted by most of college football’s powerhouse programs.
Then the Elite 11 happened.
In a competition featuring 20 of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2020 – including the class’ eventual No. 2 overall prospect Bryce Young, and Jack Miller, who was already committed to Ohio State, just to name a couple – Stroud outperformed everyone else, earning Elite 11 MVP honors.
Suddenly, with most of the other top quarterbacks in the class already committed, Stroud started drawing interest from just about every school in the market for a QB – including Ohio State, where he would ultimately sign during the December signing day, becoming the second potential future starting quarterback in the Buckeyes’ class of 2020. By the time Stroud selected the Buckeyes over a list of offers that would eventually include Georgia, Michigan, Oregon and USC, among others, he moved all the way up to near-five-star status, finishing his recruiting cycle as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback and No. 42 overall prospect of 2020.
From a national recruiting perspective, one could say Stroud came out of nowhere. To his coaches at Rancho Cucamonga, however, his rise was no surprise.
“We always thought he was good here,” Rancho Cucamonga coach Mark Verti told Eleven Warriors. “I think the coaches that came and saw him his junior year, saw him in person, loved what they saw. And that’s why they started giving offers. They saw him do his private workouts, they saw his junior film and they liked it. And then they just build up fast. But it wasn’t like he just had a huge jump. It was just, he finally got that exposure, because he waited until his junior year to play, and then they saw, ‘Oh, this guy’s pretty good.’ So end of the junior year, he’s getting coaches coming out for early workouts and after-school workouts, so then that led to the Elite 11 and that led to national rankings.”
Verti points to two reasons why Stroud’s recruitment didn’t take off until late in the cycle. For one, Stroud didn’t start at Rancho Cucamonga until his junior year, as he had to wait his turn behind an all-league quarterback (Nick Acosta) who was two years older than him – though Verti said Stroud was good enough that he almost won the job as a freshman. Secondly, Stroud played both football and basketball in high school, which meant he didn’t spend as much time on the offseason camp circuit as other quarterback recruits.
He was pretty good on the basketball court, too.
“If he stuck with basketball, he would have been a D-I player. For sure,” Rancho Cucamonga basketball coach Bill Burke said. “He’s a hell of a quarterback, but he’s that talented athletically.”
Burke never expected Stroud to play college basketball, though, because he knew the kind of quarterback Stroud was on the football field. Eventually, that also became clear to coaches throughout college football, including Ohio State’s Ryan Day.
“Up until the (Elite 11), he was kind of an unknown,” Day said when the Buckeyes signed Stroud. “We were looking at a lot of different quarterbacks out there and trying to figure out what was the right fit in the room with Jack, and so the more we learned about C.J. and certainly the senior year that he had, it goes to show you how talented he is.”
Like all of the other quarterbacks on the Buckeyes’ 2021 roster, Stroud has not yet thrown a pass in an Ohio State game. While he was on the field for eight snaps across three games as a true freshman, no passing plays were dialed up on any of them.
When that time does come, though, Verti expects Ohio State fans to be impressed by several aspects of Stroud’s game.
“It could be his catchable, accurate pass, as a fan maybe that you’ll see that. He throws a very catchable, accurate ball,” Verti said. “It could be his competitive fire. You might be able to see that on some TV. I think he’s gonna put the offense in a good position every play to be successful that play. I think he’s gonna be prepared to go.”
In his two seasons as the starting quarterback at Rancho Cucamonga, Stroud completed 63.4 percent of his passes (445 of 702) for 6,221 yards and 66 touchdowns with 15 interceptions. Stroud’s high school highlights are filled with examples of him throwing the ball with velocity, touch and anticipation while also demonstrating mobility both inside and outside of the pocket.
Verti says Stroud has “natural vision” to see when receivers are about to get open, a trait that was evident even in his first practices as a freshman.
“He just has, as a QB spot, knowing where the plays are going to be open to throw the ball,” Verti said. “And just the vision of a defense to see it while understanding, ‘The defense is overloaded here, we should go over here. The ‘backers drop there, there’s an opening.’ It’s gonna open up before the receiver gets there, and he just right away when we called it up, he could throw passes and plays that he didn’t fully understand but he knew where the opening was gonna be and completed it.”
One thing Ohio State fans did get to see a glimpse of last year was Stroud’s ability to run the ball, which he displayed when he ran for a 48-yard touchdown against Michigan State.
While Stroud didn’t run the ball extensively at Rancho Cucamonga, he has what Verti describes as “long, deceptive speed” to be a threat in that phase of the game.
Stroud’s film suggests he has the physical capability to make many of the same plays that Justin Fields can, and while he’s still completely unproven as an Ohio State quarterback, his goal is to become that same kind of player.
“I’m not as fast as Justin. I’m not as strong as Justin. But I feel like I can get to that,” Stroud told Eleven Warriors before his enrollment at Ohio State in January 2020. “Eventually I’ll be able to get on that level, and eventually I’ll be able to throw like Dwayne (Haskins). But I wanna be better. They’re probably gonna want me to be better.”
To become that same kind of player, Stroud will need to have a great work ethic, and Verti says he does.
“He’s a very competitive person, and he works hard,” Verti said. “A lot of it’s on his own. A lot of the offseason, he was coming out before school or after school, after basketball practice or if there was no basketball practice, he would come and do football QB drills on his own in the offseason.
“During the season, even the offseason, he’d be asking for film. We’d do a spring practice, he’s like, ‘Coach, where’s the film?’ And he’d get the practice film up, because he wanted to watch that practice film as soon as possible. And then during the season, the amount of film he’d watch the weekend before the Monday of the game, he knew what (the opponent) did. He was watching more film than some assistant coaches. He would come around Monday, prepared for the game plan to what we’re gonna do Friday, and have ideas. ‘Hey, what about this?’ He’d say ‘Coach, I saw you have these plays in, but I think this might work, too.’ And during the game, he knew our offense so well, he made a lot of audibles and checks from protections to plays.”
Verti said Stroud was always competitive at Rancho Cucamonga, even on the practice field, and thrived in the spotlight of playing in big games. That was true on the basketball court, too. Both Verti and Burke pointed to the example of a playoff basketball game during Stroud’s junior year – his final basketball season, as he enrolled early at Ohio State during his senior year of high school – when he hit a game-winning 3-pointer to lead Rancho Cucamonga to an upset win over Camarillo.
“There was about 3.5 seconds in the game, and I remember him coming off the court, we had the ball on our baseline side and he came off the court and he told his teammates and he told the other coaches, he goes, ‘I want the ball.’ And he drained a three,” Burke said. “He just wanted it. He was shooting the ball really well that night. And then I believe it was the next game, he didn’t have the greatest shooting game, and he knew that one of our guys was hot. It wasn’t his turn, and he made sure that he was giving the ball up.”
Stroud also drew praise from his high school coaches for his leadership. Burke described him as a player who “has that passion to win in the right way,” and both Burke and Verti said they could rely on him to lift his teammates up.
“I was going to him, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ He would come to me, ‘Coach, this is happening amongst the team, what are you seeing? Can we do this instead?’” Verti said. “Little things. He was the guy that relayed a lot from the players to me, or I would go from coaches’ concerns to him, and he would be that guy. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m worried about today’s practice, it’s hot out,’ or something else, ‘We gotta get these kids going.’ He’s like, ‘I got you, Coach.’ And he would make sure we got a good thing going.”
Day could also see those qualities in Stroud when he was recruiting Stroud out of high school.
“He just handles himself the right way,” Day said in December 2019. “He looks you in the eye, he shakes your hand. I think you're talking about somebody who was raised the right way and he's got a lot of respect and makes great decisions.”
If an oddsmaker was to handicap Ohio State’s 2021 quarterback competition before spring practices begin, Stroud would be the betting favorite. Right now, he’s the quarterback that many who follow the Buckeyes believe will be the one who leads Ohio State onto the field in its season opener at Minnesota on Sept. 2.
There isn’t much to base that off right now, and Miller and Kyle McCord will both absolutely have a chance to beat him out for the starting job with their performance this spring and summer. But it was Stroud who entered the game when Fields had to briefly exit a pair of games with injuries this past season, and that’s an indicator Stroud might enter the competition with a slight edge over the other two.
Regardless, Stroud still has a lot to prove over the next six months if he’s going to earn the trust of Day and Corey Dennis and be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback in 2021. But he’s already shown he can rise to the occasion when it’s time to compete – whether that be the last play of a high school basketball game or the Elite 11 – and he knows that things don’t always come easily in life.
Stroud’s father has been in prison since he was in middle school, forcing him to learn hard lessons at a young age. But rather than letting that knock him off course, Stroud has channeled that adversity into becoming a relentless competitor, all the while keeping the challenges he faces on the football field – like the upcoming quarterback competition – in perspective.
“I get chills whenever I’m competing. I get a grit to me,” Stroud said in January 2020. “I’m gonna be a good teammate, but I’m a competitor. When you go through those things, it makes you scratch and claw.
“I look at it like this – if I can scratch and claw through life and the things that I’ve been through, football will take care of itself.”