INDIANAPOLIS — CJ Stroud was in the Virgin Islands when he realized there would never be any going back.

Not literally, though that would be a reasonable reaction to a Caribbean vacation. It was there, on the island of Saint Thomas, that a stranger recognized him as Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud.

“I was like ‘What the heck?’ ” Stroud recalled. “It was kind of cool, but kind of scary at the same time. I’m not used to people staring at me. Where I’m from, that’s kind of weird.”

Stroud accepts that from now on, weird will be normal. He’s forevermore Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud. There’s no place to run from the klieg lights.

And he’s embracing that reality. Because the ability to do good is more valuable than the oddity of being stared at.

“It’s a blessing to be able to touch other people and inspire others,” Stroud said. “All the football stuff is cool. But seeing kids telling me they want to be like me is very amazing to me. I definitely appreciate that. I think God prepared me for this moment, and that’s why I’m thriving now.”

A bitter taste turned savory and sweet

Most anywhere else, the focus would be on the wave of momentum the Buckeyes rode into the offseason after their thrilling 48-45 Rose Bowl win over Utah.

But this is Ohio State.

“At some places, going 11-2 with a Rose Bowl win is a great year,” said Buckeyes coach Ryan Day. “Not at Ohio State.”

For Ohio State’s returning players, the taste of being the first Buckeyes to lose to Michigan since 2011 is what lingers the most.

“It was sickening,” said wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. “It didn’t feel real. We thought we were going to the playoffs, and boom.”

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This year, nothing short of beating the Wolverines and returning to the College Football Playoff is acceptable.

And to make sure this year ends with a better taste, Stroud is starting in the kitchen.

Stroud has had teammates over to his apartment for meals as he elevates into more of a leadership role as a redshirt sophomore. And it’s not exactly Stroud inviting the boys over to order in some pizzas.

As is the case with Ohio State’s offense, Stroud is the chef.

“When they came over I made soul food,” Stroud said. “Mac and cheese, fried chicken, waffles. I probably made some other things I can’t remember.”

Stroud is a true dual-threat in the kitchen, as it turns out.

“You name it, I got you,” Stroud said, jokingly inviting a reporter to dinner. “I can grill. I make soul food; Mexican food; Italian food. I just like to look and see if I’d like to make it, then I make it.”

Stroud first honed these skills at home, and has sharpened them thanks to a surprising source.

“I learned how to cook from my mom,” he said. “And little recipes on TikTok and stuff have helped me out.”

This isn’t just about eating, though.

“This past season has opened up our eyes. The closer you are, they better we’ll be, I feel,” Stroud said. “This is our first real offseason, because even in 2021 we had some COVID issues. This is the first time we’ve been able to do stuff. Paintballing, stuff like that where we can really build camaraderie.”

Of course, given the size of a football team, not everyone has made it onto the guest list yet. This includes senior safety Ronnie Hickman, who was dismayed to learn Stroud can cook.

“I didn’t know he was cooking for people. I guess we’re not that close,” Hickman joked. “But I’ll ask him to make me something. I’m completely blindsided by this right now. I didn’t even know he was in the kitchen like that. We’re going to talk about it, for sure.”

Playing the long game

Unsurprisingly, Stroud’s closest bond on the team is with Smith-Njigba. When you connect on 15 completions for 347 yards, as they did in the Rose Bowl, there’s a pretty good rapport going.

And it’s only getting better.

Smith-Njigba spent time with Stroud’s family on spring break. For the July 4th weekend, it was Stroud’s turn to visit Smith-Njigba’s family in Dallas. And between the fun, there was work to be done.

“You can always make things better. Me and him are with each other a lot,” Smith-Njigba said. “During that [vacation] time we work out and train. It’s just building it off the field to be better.”

That should be a frightening prospect for opponents. Ohio State was the nation’s leader in scoring offense and total offense in 2022. Though receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are now in the NFL, the Bucks have no shortage of returning firepower.

But Stroud is aware the ball isn’t going to move itself down the field.

“You’ve got to go out and prove it,” Stroud said. “No offense to who makes the rankings, but those are just rankings for people to see. It’s on us to prove it. Just because we had the No. 1 offense last year doesn’t mean we’ll do it again. We have to go out and take it.”

There’s quite a good chance the Buckeyes will do just that. And if they do, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Stroud seems to be sprinkling in the perfect amount of offseason seasoning.