COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Last year at this time, C.J. Stroud was an unknown, untested redshirt freshman who still hadn’t thrown a pass in a college football game.
Stroud was named the starting quarterback late in the 2021 preseason, having wrested the job from another heralded freshman. The gig brought with it outsized expectations: win every game and be even better than the last guy, Justin Fields, who was now in the NFL.
This year, as he prepares to lead the No. 2 Buckeyes against No. 5 Notre Dame in the season opener on Saturday, Coleridge Bernard Stroud IV is a boss.
A Heisman Trophy finalist last season, Stroud is already getting rich from NIL money, and he’s projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick in 2023.
Quite a whirlwind for the 20-year-old from Rancho Cucamonga, California.
“If I blink my eyes, (it’s) like I was just in high school, like getting ready,” he said recently
But 2021 was far from a dream season for Ohio State. One day in late November was truly a nightmare: the Buckeyes did the unthinkable and lost to the detested Jim Harbaugh and Michigan.
As much as Stroud distinguished himself individually last year — he completed 71.9% of his passes, threw for 44 touchdowns and broke 17 school records — the Buckeyes lost two of their biggest games. There was plenty of blame to go around, but little of it was on the young quarterback.
Defensive lapses led to a Week 2 loss to Oregon. Similar issues arose again when the Buckeyes lost to Michigan for the first time since 2011. The defeat in the rivalry game, as humiliating as it was on its face, also dashed Ohio State’s hopes of another Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance.
Stroud, knowing now all the things he didn’t know a year ago as a first-time starter, can’t wait to get another shot at it. He’s desperate to win a championship at Ohio State in what likely will be his last season.
“Honestly, I don’t think I really did a lot,” Stroud said of the 2021 season. “I feel like I barely touched my potential. I feel like I can do a lot more.”
Stroud’s teammates are impressed by how he has grown into the role, so much so that they voted him a captain. They see a more confident, vocal leader willing to get in somebody’s face if they deserve it.
“He’s speaking up. He’s more mature. He wants to win,” said Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State’s No. 1 receiver. “You know, we’re all fired up. He’s a competitor, and no one wants to win more than him, and he wants to bring that to the whole team and spread it out.”
Said offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson: “He’s been probably more outspoken than any player in the last couple of years, just encouraging or also demanding that he expects someone to do better. It’s been great to see.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day talks about Stroud these days much the same way he did Fields after the Georgia transfer came to Columbus and starred for the Buckeyes in 2019.
“I think that C.J. has really grown in terms of his leadership this year, and just has a much more, you know, wide perspective on everything that’s going on, not just his job,” Day said. “He sees it almost as a coach right now. I know his No. 1 thing is he wants to win, and everything else is secondary. And he’s practiced that way.”
Questions remain about the Ohio State defense, which has been overhauled by new coordinator Jim Knowles. But the offense is again stocked with NFL prospects.
Smith-Njigba, running back TreVeyon Henderson and left tackle Paris Johnson are first-team AP Preseason All-Americans. Johnson is one of three returning starters on the offensive line.
Stroud was a second-team AP preseason selection, edged out by Alabama’s Bryce Young. Both were Heisman finalists last season.
“I just approach it like I’ve been doing since I got here,” Stroud said. “I’ve always felt by God’s grace like I was a natural born leader, that he’s kind of blessed me with that ability. So I feel like I can relate to a lot of people in different situations. I just keep being myself, keep being unapologetically me and just understand my role.”