While there was plenty of hope about his potential performance, people didn’t know what to expect from C.J. Stroud last season. This year they’re expecting greatness, and with good reason.
Even in a redshirt freshman campaign that saw some early struggles and drew fan criticism, the California native wound up in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. By the final game of the year, and in the Rose Bowl no less, Stroud put forth the best single-game statistical effort of any quarterback in Ohio State history with 573 yards and six touchdowns against Utah.
Easy act to follow, right?
“Just because he did it last year doesn't mean it's just gonna happen this year. If anything else, he’s got a bull's-eye on his chest.”– Ryan Day on C.J. Stroud
Surely with a year of starting experience under his belt, something he didn’t have last year, Stroud should be even better than he was in 2021. But if Stroud or anyone else thinks the success of one season guarantees it for the next, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day would strongly caution to the contrary.
“Just because he did it last year doesn't mean it's just gonna happen this year. If anything else, he’s got a bull's-eye on his chest,” Day said on 97.1 The Fan recently. “So he's gonna have to bring it right from the jump, and there's a lot that comes with that. A lot of it has to do with leadership and the guys that are around him, and it's got to take everybody on that offense.”
If Day were to drink some truth serum, he’d likely admit he’s expecting big things from Stroud this year too. If the Buckeyes are to achieve their championship aspirations, justifying Day’s new $9.5 million annual salary in the process, Stroud’s success figures to be a prerequisite.
But Day can’t have the operator of his high-powered offense resting on his laurels this offseason. Not if the Buckeyes are going to make a run at a national championship.
Stroud had to adjust to truly being in the public eye for the first time last year, and it wasn’t always a comfortable process. After losing the second game of the season to Oregon and also struggling in a follow-up performance against Tulsa, Stroud became a target for vocal critics who didn’t think the Buckeyes were playing up to their typical standard.
Such is life for a quarterback at Ohio State.
Fast forward to this summer, and the tone of the outside noise has shifted drastically. Stroud is no longer being chided by fans but touted as perhaps the next big thing and possibly even the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft.
Even with two first-round picks on the field at Ohio State’s pro day (Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave), Stroud – not draft-eligible until next year – managed to garner just as much buzz with NFL scouts and talent evaluators.
Before he can get to the next level, Stroud will have the chance to rectify some of his shortcomings at the college level from a year ago. Stroud wasn’t satisfied with his fourth-place finish in the Heisman race last year, and along with returning award winner Bryce Young for Alabama, Stroud will be an early frontrunner for the sport’s most prestigious individual honor.
But even preseason odds are something Day hopes Stroud tunes out in preparation for the new year.
“We've got to be able to establish the run and run the football, to have balance and especially win big games but you know, I think for him it's just there's so much nowadays and social media and the media and just all the things that come at these guys,” Day said. “He's doing a great job, by the way, of just really keeping the main thing the main thing and focusing on the little things or staying disciplined and knowing again that he's gotta prove himself every week.”
The noise that came out of spring camp about Stroud was full of positivity. First-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles praised Stroud’s ability to read a defense this spring, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying to confuse him. Stroud said he appreciates Knowles for “bringing that swagger” to the Buckeye defense with a multitude of looks, but Knowles said not all of them can stump the returning Heisman finalist.
In fact, Knowles even compared Stroud to a two-time Super Bowl MVP this spring.
“It’s every day in 7-on-7, because we’re facing such a talented receiver corps with a great quarterback,” Knowles said. “7-on-7, at times, can be extremely frustrating. And then our quarterback does catch my eye in watching video, because we throw a lot at him defensively, the things that we do and the structure.
“And I remember when I was at Ole Miss with Eli Manning, he was the same way in that the guys that are good – which C.J. is – they can diagnose. There’s always a soft spot. We’re trying to diagnose, bluff rotations and try to deceive the quarterback and do all those and show on picture and end up at another."
Against Ohio State’s first-string defense in April’s spring game, albeit with thud tackling only, Stroud went 14-for-22 with 120 yards and a touchdown. As expected, Stroud didn’t play all that long, but that wasn’t by his own design. Day said Stroud asked him to get back in the spring game for the final drive because “he’s one of the more competitive guys I’ve been around.”
With a competitive fire burning as hot as Day says Stroud’s does, the Buckeye coach may not have much to be concerned about in terms of complacency after all.
“I think C.J. has been very consistent. He's very competitive, and I think one of the things that he's done a really good job of recently is taking what the defense gives you,” Day said after the spring game. “Jim does a really good job of changing up looks, and there's just times where he's gonna drop eight and say, 'You have to check the ball down.' And as a quarterback, especially somebody who's as competitive as C.J., he has to force himself to say, 'OK, I have to take what the defense gives me, take the checkdown, take five or six yards and move on.'
“I think he's learning to do that. And I think that's been great, his leadership's been excellent, I think he's had a very, very good spring.”