Rob Oller | Quarterback musical chairs: Best leader will win Ohio State starting job

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud hands off to running back Master Teague III during the first practice of fall camp.

In their own way, all three Ohio State freshman quarterbacks look the part. Apparently so does the fourth, but until five-star phenom Quinn Ewers arrives at practice, he remains a figment of Buckeye Nation’s imagination.

The three who did suit up Wednesday for the first day of fall camp — C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller and Kyle McCord — each have about three weeks to separate themselves. Ideally, Ryan Day would like to name his starter a week or so before the Sept. 2 opener at Minnesota.

What’s it going to take to win the job? Exceptional leadership.

“The first thing you look at is how they lead,” Day said. “The job is to lead 10 men on the field.”

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Leadership in a quarterback is not defined as simply barking orders in the huddle. For one thing, many teams no longer huddle. But also our brains default to the ingrained American business model of top-down leadership that has the boss managing their people.

To some degree that holds true for quarterbacks, who are in charge of the entire offense. But a better analogy is to compare a QB to an airline pilot who is actively in charge of transporting plane and passengers to the proper destination. He doesn’t just envision and dictate how things are supposed to work, but actually flies the plane. And the best pilots keep their cool in heavy turbulence, which inspires confidence in crew and customers. 

Rob Oller

That kind of in-the-moment presence is as much learned behavior as it is innately born, which means it can be improved upon and fine-tuned to fit the situation.

The challenge for Day and his staff is to determine which of the three quarterbacks can best command the vessel and land it in the end zone.

How does each stack up? 

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C.J. Stroud owns the most dynamic personality and comes closest of the three to resembling the smooth and easy athletic style that Ohio State fans have come to expect from their quarterback.

But how well does he lead? 

“Leadership is something that you’re born with, but you have to make it your own,” Stroud said. “The way I do that is by being myself. At the end of the day I was born with leadership ability and qualities, but I try to make them better every day.”

Leaders need tools, and Stroud found one his senior year of high school by reading “You Win in the Locker Room First,” a leadership book co-authored by former Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith.

If Stroud best fits the description of natural-born leader, Miller best captures the image of the quiet yet confident quarterback, with movie star looks. Think “Friday Night Lights” meets “The Bachelor.”

“Everybody is so good at throwing the ball and making the plays,” Miller said. “The biggest thing it’s going to come down to is who can take control of the team and become a leader.”    

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So where is Miller on the leadership chart?

“I’m more of a quiet guy, so it’s definitely more of a learning curve for me that I’ve had to experience, guys hearing your voice, which is super important in my opinion. The best quarterbacks are pretty vocal,” he said.

Does that mean Miller is a step or two behind Stroud? Not necessarily. Day stressed that leadership comes in “different styles and shapes,” but the non-negotiable is showing the ability to go about your business as professionally as possible.

In other words, no knucklehead or lazy practice player will start at quarterback.

“A lot of it is setting a standard on your own,” Day said. “Do guys believe in you? Sometimes those go together as you start to prove yourself on the field.”

Miller, like Stroud, has found leadership guidance outside the OSU meeting room. His father, Jack Jr. sends him daily quotes and videos to build his confidence.

“It’s kind of cheesy but I like it, and it’s helped me a lot,” Miller said. 

McCord comes off as a mix of Stroud and Miller and strikes you as a grinder. As someone inside the Ohio State program put it, “He just looks like a football player.”

Does he look like a leader?

“Leadership is a little bit of both (learned and developed),” McCord said. “Naturally, you have to lead as a quarterback, and the biggest thing is putting yourself into position where guys believe what you say. If you show guys you’re about it, and you work hard, they begin to buy in.”

All three quarterbacks are physically talented enough to start, but while it is tempting to think the best leadership is a strong arm, what Ohio State mostly needs is a QB who can consistently pilot the plane from one goal line to the other. Without crashing it.