LOS ANGELES — Over the course of just a few months, Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud has gone from a no-experience freshman to Heisman Trophy finalist.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pounder from Inland Empire, California, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards for Rancho Cucamonga High before enrolling at OSU, has returned home to face Utah in the Rose Bowl game Saturday (3 p.m. MST, ESPN) in Pasadena.
“He started the season without having one college pass under his belt. Everything he was doing was for the first time — his first completion, his first interception, his first touchdown, his first win, his first loss,” said Buckeyes coach Ryan Day. “So there’s a lot that came with that. I thought his preparation as the season went on was excellent. His level of play really increased week-in and week-out. He played like one of the better quarterbacks in the country the entire year.”
Stroud led the nation’s No. 1-ranked team in total offense (551.4 yards per game), scoring offense (45.5 points per game) and the No. 5 team in passing offense (364.9 yards per game). He completed 280 of 395 passes (70.9%) for 3,862 yards with 38 touchdowns and five interceptions. He ranks No. 3 in passing efficiency and owns top 10 quarterback rankings nationally in eight different categories.
And Stroud also has the intangibles that elite quarterbacks must possess.
“He’s a great leader,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s cool under pressure and he moves well in the pocket. He’s a real talent.”
For his efforts this season, Stroud finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting earlier this month, behind Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who was the 2021 Heisman winner.
While Stroud is grateful for that honor, the fact that he did not win that award motivates him.
“I’m blessed, but it’s not good enough to me. I feel like I did a lot this season, but I could have definitely played better, but I feel like the stuff that I did do — I’m not saying I should have won,” Stroud said. “I think Bryce definitely did the most this year. He had the most opportunities. I think if I played a couple more games and I do the right things, maybe things go the other way, but I’m super happy for my brother. That’s my brother right there, but at the end of the day I’m super blessed to be where I’m at.”
Growing up, Stroud studied film of various Black quarterbacks, even from bygone eras, that have inspired him.
“I was watching quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson, Michael Vick, Cam Newton. I mean, of course, like the older guys,” he said. “My dad used to make me watch Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham and showing me the way that they paved for us to even be in this opportunity because back in the day we weren’t allowed to play quarterback, you know what I mean, or we weren’t wanted to play quarterback because they didn’t think we had the smarts for it, so I definitely think that me being in this platform is a blessing.”
One performance by a Black QB that stands out to him happened 16 years ago in the Rose Bowl, when Texas quarterback Vince Young helped upset USC in 2006 to win the national championship.
“That was probably the best game probably ever in college football,” Stroud said. “I think that was probably the one that sticks out for me.”
Stroud wants to make his own mark on the Rose Bowl, and on college football, and influence younger generations that will come after him.
“I think growing up watching other young Black quarterbacks like myself, but in a different time setting, it was like a big inspiration for me just to let myself know I can do it,” he said. “So I definitely think that it could be a boost for who knows what type of kid. It could be Black, white, Mexican, Puerto Rican. It doesn’t really matter. I just want to inspire young kids to know they can do it just like I am. I think it’s a big blessing and a big inspiration.”
How does Stroud compare to other quarterbacks that the Utes have faced this season?
“He has a live arm. He is a prototypical pocket passer who is capable of running as well, so I would consider him a dual threat because he has flashability when he does pull it,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “He wants to stay in the pocket and get it to his lead receivers, and I know a couple of them aren’t playing, but it’s Ohio State so I know they’ll have guys ready to go, ready to play, especially in this game. And so he’s a very well-rounded quarterback. As far as comparing him to somebody that I played, you know, I mean, he’s very accurate. I can’t really think of anybody that I would compare him to because he’s in a world of his own kind of. He’s still a very good talent.”
Utah recruited Stroud out of high school and he actually took an unofficial recruiting visit to Salt Lake City.
“I had a good time in Utah,” Stroud recalled. “Didn’t really do too much. I was only there for half a day. Yeah, they treated me well.”
Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley has been devising a game plan for Stroud and the OSU offense. What stands out about Stroud?
“Just his decision-making. For a young player, very good decision-maker. Gets the ball out quick, understands when pressure is coming, where to go with the ball,” he said. “Very good athlete. He’s looking to throw first, but man, when he takes off, he can run. For as young as he is, a very football-savvy quarterback.”
Meanwhile, Stroud loves being back home, and eager to show how far he’s come since the start of the season, and looking to make his mark at the Rose Bowl.
“It’s a great opportunity for me just to play in front of home fans and people who wanted to come out to Ohio to come see me play but couldn’t make the trip,” he said. “I definitely think it’s a blessing for them to actually come and watch me play.”