C.J. Stroud never envisioned he would play for Ohio State as a kid growing up.
In his younger years, Stroud dreamed of playing college basketball. Even once he decided to pursue a career in football – a decision he made after his eighth-grade football coach told him he had the potential to play in the NFL – the Rancho Cucamonga, California, native thought he’d be playing somewhere on the West Coast like USC, UCLA or another Pac-12 school.
Ultimately, the recruiting process led Stroud to Ohio State, where he’s now the third Buckeye quarterback in the last four years to be a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. And seeing the success Justin Fields and Dwayne Haskins had at Ohio State before him is a big reason why Stroud chose to become a Buckeye two years ago.
“It definitely played a part into it, just honestly seeing young Black quarterbacks go out there and play really well and having intelligence about the game,” Stroud told Eleven Warriors on Wednesday. “I used to go to camps and people would think I played receiver because I was just tall and Black … So just seeing how Ohio State not always has but a majority of the years has had African-American quarterbacks. And I’m really big on my culture. And that’s not a disrespect of any other culture. If you can play, you can play. It doesn’t matter. But I just saw how they treated us, so that really played a part into it.”
While Stroud didn’t anticipate becoming a Buckeye until Ohio State started recruiting him during his senior year of high school, he watched Ohio State games regularly on TV and was inspired by what he saw from Haskins in 2018 and Fields in 2019, when both of them were Heisman finalists. By becoming a Buckeye himself, Stroud believed he would have the potential to follow in their footsteps, though he’s tried to do it in his own way.
“You’ve seen Dwayne, you’ve seen him do what he’s doing when he was here. You’ve seen Justin, what he did when he was here. And then I got to witness it (with Fields) last year. So you definitely want to picture yourself in those shoes,” Stroud said Wednesday. “But I feel like just being a competitor, you have to go do it yourself. You can’t just ride their coattails. So that’s something I’d tried to do is pave my own way, just be myself, play my way. I don’t try to be like Justin or Dwayne. But still learn from those guys, learn from their successes and learn from their mistakes. So those are all things that I took into consideration to come here and then do what I’m doing now.”
As Ohio State’s backup quarterback in 2020, Stroud had the opportunity to learn from Fields and observe his play firsthand, which gave him a blueprint for how to be a successful signal-caller for the Buckeyes. But it’s something Fields told Stroud while back in Columbus for a visit this offseason that’s resonated with Stroud in his first year as the starting quarterback.
“He was out here and we were chilling together and he told me like, ‘No matter how it goes, bro, just know after your first couple of games, you’ll get used to it,’” Stroud said. “Because you have to definitely get out there and play, you know what I’m saying? It’s different than practice, it’s different than scrimmaging. And that’s kind of what happened, and it was crazy that he even gave me that advice, because that’s exactly what kind of went down.”
Stroud’s first season leading Ohio State’s offense has been filled with plenty of trials; most notably, Stroud separated the AC joint in his shoulder in the Buckeyes’ season opener against Minnesota, an injury that he told Eleven Warriors still hasn’t fully healed yet, though he’s worked hard to ensure that it doesn’t affect his play.
“I’ve definitely had to do my maintenance and keep it right,” Stroud said. “My scapula is kind of still peeking out of my shoulder a little bit. But at the end of the day, I gotta go out there and play, no one cares.”
The injury hasn’t stopped Stroud from putting up some of the best numbers of any quarterback in college football as he has completed 70.9 percent of his passing attempts (280 of 395) for 3,862 yards and 38 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency (182.2), fourth in passing yards per game (351.1), fifth in yards per passing attempt (9.78) and touchdown passes and sixth in completion percentage.
|Note: Haskins’ and Fields’ statistics do not include their statistics from post-Heisman bowl games.|
As a result, Stroud is the third straight Ohio State quarterback to be invited to the Heisman ceremony after his first season as a starter. He attributes that to how well Ryan Day, Kevin Wilson and the rest of Ohio State’s coaches prepare their quarterbacks for immediate success in the Buckeyes’ offense.
“It’s definitely not one of those things that’s easy to learn, but once you get a grasp on it and you kind of start thinking how the coaches do like Coach Wilson and Coach Day and you kind of have the same verbiage and language, all those things over the course of the offseason matter,” Stroud said. “So they did a great job of just helping me game plan and stuff like that. I did a lot of things on my own and held up my end of the bargain.
“Of course, having great players around me like my receivers, my running backs, my tight ends, my O-line, they definitely helped as well. I wouldn’t be here without them.”
Day says Stroud deserves plenty of credit himself, though, for how hard he’s worked to get to this point.
“I think his play speaks for itself and what he did this year,” Day said Sunday. “I think he really grew. And the way he played midway through the year and toward the end was very, very good. We didn’t win the last game obviously, but there were some games that he was only in there for the first half of some of them, so maybe his numbers would have been a little higher if he had played in all those games. But I thought he really played well, and I think he deserves to be in New York.”
Stroud will be in New York for Saturday’s Heisman ceremony, which will be the first time he’s ever been to New York, and he says he feels “truly blessed” to get that opportunity. Like Haskins and Fields before him, Stroud probably won’t win the Heisman – Alabama quarterback and fellow Southern California native Bryce Young, who Stroud said he’s “super happy for,” is the heavy favorite to take home the trophy – but Stroud feels honored just to be going.
Winning games, not winning the Heisman, has always been Stroud’s goal, he says. But he’s still appreciative of the recognition.
“I don’t try to look at that stuff, I think it’s kind of a distraction if you ask me, but of course it’s really cool, because my whole life, I dreamed of things like this and just having the opportunity, it’s just crazy to me,” Stroud said. “I’m still kind of shocked, and I’m just blessed.”