From the outside looking in, C.J. Stroud’s decision to turn pro seemed like an easy one.
But by all accounts, it was not. Stroud himself called it “one of the hardest I’ve ever had to make” in his public NFL draft declaration on Jan. 16. Ryan Day acknowledged that in last week’s press conference, and while he might not have expected the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist to return to Ohio State, he would’ve welcomed him back with open arms.
“I mean I was hoping, yeah,” Day said with a smile.
That’s not an indictment on the two Buckeyes who will compete to replace Stroud this offseason. Of course, Stroud would’ve given Ohio State a proven superstar under center, but both Day and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis are excited to see what Kyle McCord and Devin Brown have to offer as the potential successor to the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
And despite McCord’s edge in experience, Dennis says he and Brown will start this offseason’s quarterback competition on equal footing in terms of opportunity.
“There definitely is a blank slate,” Dennis said. “I think that just the difference is the guys kind of know what areas that they want to work on, they want to improve on and they want to go on. But no, absolutely. It's a blank slate and it'll be a fun spring for sure.”
Day said Oregon State transfer Tristan Gebbia and incoming freshman Lincoln Kienholz will get their share of reps as well upon entering the program. But it’s no secret that McCord and Brown are the two players who stand to win the starting job.
Day said the staff will evaluate each player’s stats through the spring, but that certain intangible qualities may ultimately make the difference when deciding on the new starter.
“They're both gonna get a ton of reps. And Tristan’s gonna get some and then when Lincoln gets in the summer, he'll get some as well,” Day said. “But I mean, they're gonna get a bunch of reps and compete. And you try to do the best you can to look at their statistics, like the completion percentage and there's a lot that goes with that, drops and things like that. But at the end of the day, it's gonna be the guy that our team believes in and the coaching staff believes in that can lead our team to a championship. That's not always clear. It sometimes can be a little gray, but you do the best you can.”
But what factors constitute that level of belief? Dennis said he’ll be keeping a close eye on the quarterbacks’ ability to run the offense efficiently and how much they grow as leaders throughout winter workouts and spring ball.
"At the end of the day, it's gonna be the guy that our team believes in and the coaching staff believes in that can lead our team to a championship."– Ryan Day on the QB battle
“They're both different. But I think just the intangibles right now for Ohio State is running the offense,” Dennis said. “… It's just how can you be efficient and how can you be productive? And I think that those are two things that we're going to look for in the spring and how you can transition to offense and can you run the offense and can you be those two things; efficient, and then can you execute as well?”
Thus far, McCord’s had more opportunities to prove himself to the staff. The five-star 2021 recruit has an extra season over Brown in the program and even started against Akron while Stroud was injured during his true freshman season.
Day said the Philadelphia native has handled his backup quarterback duties well over the past two years, and that things may have been even more difficult for Brown as the third-string passer in 2022. But even while sitting behind Stroud, both quarterbacks have had chances to put their skills on display.
Day mentioned several practices at the conclusion of the regular season as moments that served as something of a preview for the competition we’ll see unfold in the spring and beyond.
“(McCord)’s grown, he's done a good job. It's hard when you're the backup, as you know. Especially for Devin being the third, you're splitting sometimes the backup reps and trying to get C.J. ready to go,” Day said. “The good news for both of them was in the bowl practice, there was a few days – I think C.J. was down for a day, then he went to the Heisman for a couple of days – so those guys were able to step up. And we had some really competitive practices in there. We were actually able to see those guys compete, and it was good to see.
"And I think at the end of the day, both of them do things a little bit different in their skill sets. But the guy who's the leader, there's a lot of different ways to do it, and is competitively tough, is gonna ultimately win the job.”
McCord may have a leg up in terms of pure passing ability, but Day and Dennis lauded Brown’s mobility as a trait that could set him apart. Dennis also said teammates are drawn to the second-year QB’s bright personality.
“Devin's awesome. He's an athletic kid, great personality, guys do gravitate to him,” Dennis said. “But it'll be fun to see when these guys get more reps. And that's what we're excited for in the spring, seeing guys being able to take a lot of reps. And that's really what we're looking forward to.”
Day hopes to name a starter by the end of spring, although he acknowledged the possibility that one may not separate himself from the other quite that soon. Stroud wasn’t named the starter until 12 days before the 2021 season opener, but Dennis said the coaching staff always wants to have its top guy in place sooner rather than later.
Given the success of the Ohio State passing offense in recent years and the cast of stars that will surround McCord or Brown, both players will be chomping at the bit to earn the nod from Day and Dennis.
And from the sound of things, they’ll both receive an equal opportunity to do so this offseason.
“I'm excited to see these two guys compete. What an unbelievable opportunity for both of them,” Day said. “When you look at the guys that are surrounding and the cast that's surrounding them, I mean you couldn't be more excited to be quarterback right now, I would think, in college football. So, Kyle's now going into year three, and Devin's going into year two. So I'd say Kyle has one more year of experience and has started one game. He's played in games more than Devin.
“But it's going to be a heck of a competition. I'm really looking forward to seeing it. They both have a little bit of a different skill set and it's gonna be fun to watch them compete this spring.”