C.J. Stroud’s Draft Declaration Sets Stage For Quarterback Battle Between Kyle McCord, Devin Brown

By Griffin Strom on January 16, 2023 at 6:00 pm
Devin Brown, Kyle McCord

C.J. Stroud started all but one of Ohio State’s last 26 games at quarterback over the past two seasons. In that timeframe, only 72 passes were attempted by Buckeyes not named Stroud.

After declaring for the 2023 NFL draft on Monday, Stroud will never throw another pass in an Ohio State uniform. And as daunting a prospect as it will be for the program to replace the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, there are two players in particular who have waited patiently for this very moment.

After waiting their turns, Kyle McCord and Devin Brown will now spend this offseason competing to fill Stroud’s shoes as the next starting quarterback for the scarlet and gray.

“What an opportunity I have. To say I'm competing for the starting job at Ohio State, like I would never have imagined I would have been able to do that,” Devin Brown told Eleven Warriors at Peach Bowl media day in Atlanta last month. “So I'm just so thrilled I can even have that opportunity.”

For Brown, who only entered the program last January, the wait has hardly been excruciating. Kyle McCord, on the other hand, has cut his teeth in the Buckeye program for two full years while watching Stroud rack up accolades as Ohio State’s starter. 

“I think just the more reps that you get, the more confident you get and the slower the game becomes for you. So that's really where I'm at right now."– Kyle McCord

A five-star recruit in the 2021 class, McCord carried an even higher recruiting profile into the program than Stroud did the year prior. As a true freshman two seasons ago, McCord was part of a three-man race to replace Justin Fields as the Buckeye starter, alongside Stroud and Jack Miller. McCord was the runner-up in that competition, and 8,123 yards and 85 Stroud touchdowns later, nobody’s second-guessing that decision.

But now the most experienced quarterback in Ryan Day and Corey Dennis’s position room, McCord will enter the spring as the frontrunner to take the reins of the Ohio State offense.

“I think just the more reps that you get, the more confident you get and the slower the game becomes for you. So that's really where I'm at right now,” McCord told Eleven Warriors last month. “I mean, every single day I feel like I'm taking a step forward. So, just trying to continue on that path.”

McCord is the only Buckeye to start a game in place of Stroud over the past two seasons. Stroud battled a shoulder injury early in his first year as QB1, and after shaky team results through the first three games in 2021, some thought McCord might be able to usurp Stroud altogether with a stellar start when Stroud sat out a game against Akron due to a shoulder injury.

The New Jersey native completed 13 of his 18 pass attempts for 319 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the 59-7 victory over the Zips. But while the opportunity was an invaluable experience for the first-year Buckeye, it didn’t earn him any more starts thereafter.

Still, McCord has completed 70.7% of his 58 attempts for 606 yards, three scores and two picks over the past two years. That may not seem like much of a body of work, but it’s a whole lot more than Stroud had before becoming the Buckeye starter. After all, Stroud hadn’t even attempted a pass in a college game before winning the job.

McCord said the feedback he’s gotten from the Buckeye coaching staff indicates he’s taking all the right steps. As far as what he needs to continue to improve, McCord cited leadership skills and small technical details that could set him apart from his competitors.

“I think it's all over (the place), I think just as far as being a leader, being as vocal as I can with the guys, really kind of being the leader for the twos, the second-team offense,” McCord said. “And then on top of that, just all the little things. Getting through your progressions as fast as possible, making a check at the line, protections, all that. So I think a lot goes into it, but it's good. They push me every single day. They don't ever let me get complacent or anything like that. So that's exactly what I want.”

For either quarterback that wins the starting job, they’ll have the benefit of some of the nation’s top playmakers to aid them in operating the offense. Ohio State must replace three starters on the offensive line, but the Buckeyes are set to return their entire year-end starting wide receiver corps and every running back from the 2022 roster.

McCord may have a one-up in terms of chemistry with the Buckeyes’ most heralded pass-catching weapon, given he played high school football with Biletnikoff Award finalist Marvin Harrison Jr. at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s Prep.

"I feel like I've grown dramatically, and even coming in early in the spring, I feel like those few extra months helped me even more than the guys that came in later."– Devin Brown

Harrison’s breakout 2022 campaign was hardly a surprise for his high school quarterback, and the prospect of reigniting their connection next season is especially tantalizing given what Harrison accomplished as a sophomore.

“I think it was really just only a matter of time with him. I mean, he worked so hard at it and obviously he's unbelievably gifted as well. So when you mix those two things together, that's the result you get is just a complete monster out there on the field,” McCord said. “So I'm extremely proud of him. But the crazy thing is he's only scratching the surface with what he can do. So I'm excited to see how he finishes this year out and then going into one last season of college football.”

But McCord is hardly a lock to take the first snap under center against Indiana on Sept. 2, and that’s no knock on him. Brown’s simply talented enough for many to wonder if he might have the higher ceiling of the pair despite possessing less experience.

The four-star, top-50 prospect was Ohio State’s third-string quarterback this past year and didn’t attempt a pass on any of his 15 snaps. But Brown’s arm talent has been apparent during multiple open practice viewing windows. Just a few weeks ago, Brown’s 60-plus-yard touchdown pass to freshman wideout Kyion Grayes against the Buckeyes’ scout team defense in bowl practice turned heads in Atlanta.

Brown’s mobility as a run threat could also add a new dimension to the Buckeye offense after two years in which Stroud was mostly a pocket passer.

“I feel like I'm more of a playmaking type of guy. I feel like I used to just kind of be very like slow-paced with the offense I was in in Arizona, it was a little different,” Brown said. “And I feel like my game has changed completely, going into Corner Canyon (the Utah high school where he played his senior year), going into college. And you know, it's changed like every year honestly, in my opinion. But I feel like I just have some good playmaking abilities. I feel like I'm not a fast guy, but I feel like I can make guys miss and have the ability to run.

"I feel like my arm talent is there. But it's there for everybody at this level, so I wouldn't say it's spectacular, but it's just something that I think is very good. I wouldn't say much more than that. Just a little bit athletic and can throw the ball alright.”

Brown was humble in his assessment of his own skill set, but it’s clear he’s doing something right if the competition with McCord is as close as many believe it will be. Brown said he’s improved leaps and bounds since arriving as an early enrollee last January, and he’s soaked up as much as he could from watching Stroud play in 2022.

“I think it's night and day. You know, even when C.J. was in New York for the Heisman stuff, there was a lot more reps going around,” Brown said. “So it was good to be able to get in front of guys like the ones and twos and just being able to really work on my leadership skills and being able to push the team and just keep grinding in practice. So I feel like I've grown dramatically, and even coming in early in the spring, I feel like those few extra months even helped me even more than the guys that came in later. I feel like even when they came in, I didn't feel like a freshman. I felt like I was older than them within that short amount of time.”

At the conclusion of the regular season, Brown saw speculation online that he might enter the transfer portal in search of a better opportunity to start right away as a second-year college player. But Brown put any rumors to bed when he took to Twitter to post a clip from the 1998 movie Rounders in which Matt Damon’s character says, “I’m not going anywhere.”

Brown said he was “tired of hearing people talk” about the possibility of him leaving the program and wanted to make it clear that all his chips are in at Ohio State. But that means he’ll face a tough competition with his stablemate in which he’ll have no guarantees of a starting job.

Neither player hinted at any animosity in their relationship, though, and both said they’ve grown close over the last year.

“Me and Kyle are really close friends. We're hanging out all the time, playing Xbox over here, just chopping it up,” Brown said. “You know, we're in the same situation. There's no hard love. We're both happy for each other, we're both clapping for each other in practice, we just want each other to be great.”

McCord said any perception of a contentious relationship between the two would only come from outside the program.

“People want to make it seem like we would butt heads every day. But when you spend that much time with somebody, I mean they really become your brother,” McCord said. “So we've gotten pretty close as the year's gone on. And I think we push each other every single day in practice. I mean, he supports me and I support him. So it's a really good relationship we have.”

McCord and Brown won’t be the only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in 2023. Incoming freshman Lincoln Kienholz is a four-star, top-200 recruit in his own right, and is fresh off of making several highlight plays in the All-American Bowl. Like Brown, Kienholz possesses an ability to run the ball that McCord may not.

Kienholz won’t arrive at Ohio State until the summer, though, which will only make the experience gap between him and the other two Buckeye quarterbacks that much more pronounced. While Kienholz may have a bright future in scarlet and gray, he’s an unlikely candidate to truly threaten for a starting job right off the bat.

Barring any surprising developments before the season, it’ll be a two-man race to replace a decorated quarterback in Columbus, and both McCord and Brown are grateful for the chance to shine.

“It's incredible. Like I said, to think where I'm at right now, I would have never believed myself if somebody told me that,” Brown said. “And I'm just so blessed with this opportunity. I'm glad I get to be here with my team doing this.”

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