Once overlooked as a prep prospect, C.J. Stroud now in mix for Ohio State quarterback job

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

Editor’s note: The is the first in a series of three stories looking at Ohio State's offseason quarterback competition to replace Justin Fields. Part 1: Jack Miller. Part 2: Kyle McCord.  

When C.J. Stroud was in middle school, he made a list of his dream destinations to play college football. They were eight of the sport’s blue bloods, including Ohio State.

To recall her son’s early aspirations, Kimberly Stroud has kept a photo of the list in her phone’s camera roll.

“He was very determined to get to a top school,” she said. “C.J. always believed in himself.”

But it was a lengthy wait. Unlike other quarterbacks who started for their high school varsity teams as underclassmen and quickly gained the attention of recruiters, Stroud had to bide time.

Ohio State freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud warms up before the Buckeyes played Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game.

He didn’t make his first varsity start at Rancho Cucamonga High School in southern California until he was a junior.  

The path to Columbus, where he will be among a trio competing to replace Justin Fields as Ohio State’s starting quarterback when spring practice opens Friday, involved perseverance. His competitors, Kyle McCord and Jack Miller, both committed to Ohio State before Stroud ever received a scholarship from the Buckeyes.

Stroud did have an opportunity to win the starting job when he enrolled at Rancho Cucamonga in 2016. Two classes below Nick Acosta, he pushed the older passer for the job deep into the summer.

“They were neck and neck,” said Mark Verti, the Cougars’ coach who was then offensive coordinator. “It was really close.”

Stroud lost the starting job in high school, but learned from it

The staff settled on Acosta with sound reasoning. He was more familiar with their multi-formation offense and became an all-league passer. Stroud served as the backup for the next two seasons, mostly playing on the junior-varsity level.

Despite how tight the preseason battle had been, it was an unwelcomed result all the same for Stroud, especially seeing friends and eventual top quarterback recruits D.J. Uiagalelei and Bryce Young start earlier at other area private schools.

Stroud’s mother recalled it as a difficult time as C.J. coped with the setback, but thought it also left him with a valuable opportunity for personal growth.  

“Even though he had to sit behind another quarterback, he knew his time was going to come,” Kimberly Stroud said. “He was gracious. He was out there being a leader, uplifting the team, uplifting the other quarterback. He wasn’t sitting in the corner mad. He was just always anxious, ‘I’m gonna get my chance.’ To me, he developed more patience and understanding that you’re going to have to work for everything. Nothing’s handed to you.”

Even C.J. Stroud’s debut as a starter as a junior in 2018 involved a speed bump. He rolled his ankle and missed the following week’s game. But he made enough of a splash to pick up a scholarship offer from Colorado by the end of the junior season.

Verti believes interest from colleges lagged because they could only rely on limited game film. What’s more, Stroud did not participate in club football leagues in the winter, choosing instead to play basketball at Rancho Cucamonga.

Basketball was one of his favorite childhood sports. He rooted for the Los Angeles Lakers and was a big fan of Kobe Bryant, putting up a poster of the NBA star in his bedroom.

It left him largely unnoticed as a football prospect.

“I think that really kept him in the shadows for a lot of people on the recruiting trail,” Verti said.

C.J. Stroud did not throw a pass as an Ohio State freshman last season, but he did score on a 48-yard touchdown run against Michigan State in December.

A big break for Stroud came in 2019, the summer before his senior season, when he was selected as the MVP of the prestigious Elite 11 Finals quarterbacks camp in Frisco, Texas, which brings together the nation’s top-ranked passing prospects.

Ryan Day takes notice of C.J. Stroud

In the week following the event, Joey Roberts, the director of scouting for Elite 11, said he received phone calls from nearly a dozen college coaches, including Ohio State’s Ryan Day.

There was a lot to like about Stroud, he told them. He had thrown 12 touchdowns without an interception during the 7-on-7 competition and showed impressive touch on his deep ball. But Roberts also added intangibles as he relayed their evaluation.

“He was the off the charts,” Roberts said.

He mentioned how Stroud got along well with his teammates and sought out additional coaching.

Jerrod Johnson, the former Texas A&M quarterback who worked with Stroud at the Elite 11, took constant questions from Stroud, touching on seemingly every element of the position — from footwork to vocal leadership to digesting his playbook. Feeling overlooked, Stroud was determined to take advantage of the stage with high-profile recruits.

“When he first came that week, you could sense a little bit of, ‘Where do I stand with all these guys that I’ve seen on the message boards and over the internet?’ ” Johnson said. “He really wanted to show what he had.”

Most top schools were soon after Stroud, who would become the No. 2-rated pro-style passer in his 2020 recruiting class, according to the composite rankings from 247Sports. A senior season in which he threw for 3,878 yards and 47 touchdowns and led the Cougars to the semifinal round of the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section's Division II bracket also helped.

Enough coaches swarmed Stroud with text and social media messages that he began putting his cell phone on silent mode while attending classes.

Ohio State quarterbacks: Stroud? Miller? McCord? As spring practice starts, Ohio State's quarterback battle begins

The Buckeyes offered him a scholarship midway through the fall. and the strong-armed 6-foot-3 passer committed in December.

Stroud felt a sense of relief to receive such interest from premier programs, many of which were on his list of long-sought-after schools.

“It was an adventure,” Kimberly Stroud said. “It was really fun, though. It was fun to watch.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman