In His Shoes

By Ramzy Nasrallah on January 11, 2023 at 1:15 pm
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) escapes a tackle from Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter (88) during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl NCAA College Football Playoff semifinal game on Saturday, Dec 31, 2022, in Atlanta. News Joshua L Jones Syndication Online Athens
© Joshua L. Jones / USA TODAY NETWORK

You might believe C.J. Stroud's first and last highlights looked nothing like the rest of his Ohio State legacy.

It's a reasonable opinion. The same quarterback who practically refused to release and run the ball over his two-season tenure introduced himself by racing for a 48-yard touchdown in his debut.

That first highlight bookend happened at Michigan State’s expense in 2020, where the Buckeyes were down ten offensive players and four coaches including Ryan Day and Corey Dennis. Stroud got into his first live college game without his play-caller or position coach in the stadium. They weren't even in the same state.

Thanks to quarantines and a five-touchdown lead, his offensive line was green even by garbage time standards. None of that mattered. Stroud had no intention of just making an appearance.

choo choo choo here comes CJ Stroud
Stroud, then no.14, threw no passes in his collegiate debut while rushing once for a 48-yard touchdown.

Day notoriously has a short leash for backup quarterbacks in relief appearances, but he was quarantined in his basement that afternoon. Stroud's first four snaps as a college football quarterback in a live game were handoffs to 3rd string tailback Miyan Williams.

He could have just kept that going. Williams gained six, six, five and 11 yards on those carries. But on the fifth snap Stroud read the defensive end and yanked the ball out of Williams' chest. He was intent on registering a statistic that afternoon, garbage time be damned.

His brief appearance in relief of Justin Fields became a notable highlight as he pulled away from the Sparty defense with an almost elegant, gliding gait; long strides which had not been seen from an Ohio State quarterback since the twilight of the Jim Tressel era.

Oh, that’s who C.J. Stroud is I remember thinking. Hopefully he can sling it, too.

Four straight inside zone runs by Williams had lulled Michigan State into a false sense of anticipation, and that's when Stroud made his move. Freshman slot receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the first teammate to congratulate him in the end zone.

THAT TOUCHDOWN IN EAST LANSING was the first of 86 he would score as Ohio State's quarterback. It's STILL the only one Stroud scored with his feet.

Those two would break Ohio State passing and receiving records the following season as starters. But they did not connect on that afternoon. That keeper was Stroud's only statistic.

After he exited the game, Jack Miller entered and took safety on a bad snap. Both backups had gotten garbage time opportunities, and one had exploited his by extending himself beyond the three objectives (handle snap, hand off, burn clock) while the other failed to achieve the minimum.

Yes, the snap quality that day was an adventure, but the quiet part coming out of a 40-point beatdown on the road with 23 players and four coaches unavailable was the first guy off the bench after Justin should be just fine.

That touchdown was the first of 86 he would score as Ohio State's quarterback. It's still the only one Stroud scored with his feet. One rushing touchdown, ever. Forty-eight yards.

If someone told you that afternoon in East Lansing that Stroud would finish his Ohio State career with that one rushing touchdown along with 85 more through the air, you wouldn’t believe it.

You still might not believe it. And imagine seeing this chart showing his rushing production:

FIRST & LAST GAMES 13 82 6.3 1
THE 24 IN BETWEEN 67 54 0.8 0

You might be thinking what about that Northwestern game when gale force winds made throwing impossible and that's a good thought - Stroud had six carries for 79 yards in a game no one wanted to play.

Which means in the other 23 games, Stroud "rushed" 61 times for minus 25 yards. Mostly sacks.

That brings us to the other bookend - his final highlight, a brilliant 27-yard scamper on a night where he had a career-high 12 carries for a net of 34 yards, which subtracts 37 sack yards from the 71 he gained on eight deliberate carries.

This was indoors, with no inclement conditions in what was the polar opposite of garbage time. He ran the ball because as was the case in Evanston, the situation demanded it.

He put the team on his back. His release and run was the last decent thing about 2022.

emeka baby this is no time to be a spectator, look for a red jersey and kill it the same way they killed Marv
Stroud had a career-high 12 carries in the Peach Bowl, which was also the most for any player on either team.

Imagine seeing only those two plays in advance of his time at Ohio State, and then being told Stroud would be a two-time Heisman finalist. What's the appropriate Buckeye QB comparison based on that information? Maybe combine Braxton Miller with Terrelle Pryor?

But you still had not seen him throw a pass yet. Okay, now you're told Stroud would have 8,123 passing yards and 85 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions over 25 starts. Combine Braxton/Pryor/Haskins and bam, now you have a quarterback you can't even construct in a lab.

And that impossible standard is what so many fans held Stroud to during those 23 games separating East Lansing from Atlanta. If you made him more of a runner than a passer, you siphon production away from the aerial assault few teams were able to contain without luck or Mother Nature's assistance.

Stroud will be unavailable to any NFL team drafting beyond the single-digits.

You might have wished he just ran a little more. Sure, there were a handful of plays where Stroud could have accumulated the statistics you wanted him to have. But there were exactly two games where his reluctance to release could have meant the difference between winning or losing.

The first came in Evanston and the last was in Atlanta. Stroud ran the ball when it was the best decision and the stakes justified it, which speaks to his decision making. He's quite a decent ball carrier, but the problem is decent doesn't begin to describe his passing ability.

Stroud is capable of what are basically effortless, safe 30-yard handoffs with the flick of his wrist. The best version of him was the one throwing passes to four and five-star receivers. He knows it. Day knows it. Defenses know it. And we know it too; some of us just didn't like it.

The only other time Stroud ran the ball was in his debut with the game in-hand, because he decided just burning clock without a mandate to throw a pass wasn't to his liking. He wanted to make his presence known in an empty stadium and took the appropriate risk. Touchdown.

This week as draft-eligible Ohio State players follow a deliberate cadence to allow each other to make their own uncluttered announcements, Stroud's will likely be the very last one.

NFL teams have studied all of the same highlights we saw, but those organizations utilize a more practical lens than fans do. They saw the same NFL arm, advanced coverage reading and purposeful decision-making for 25 games, 26 if you count garbage time in East Lansing.

The fan lens scrutinizes the reluctance to release and run, the two losses to Michigan (65/97 for 743 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs and a gentle reminder Stroud doesn't play defense or catch passes) along with no division titles. The NFL understands exactly how he performed in big games.

And as a result, he will be unavailable to any team drafting beyond the single-digits. The club Stroud plays for next year will have arguably the best pure passer along with one of the most shrewd decision makers the Buckeyes ever had.

He elevated the program as a destination for quarterbacks. And that is Stroud's Ohio State legacy.

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