What are reasonable expectations for Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud?
It’s no secret that Ohio State’s run to the 2020 National Championship game was paced by an elite offense. The Buckeyes averaged 41 points a game and finished second nationally in S & P+ offensive efficiency. The defense was certainly serviceable, but the Buckeyes final offensive efficiency numbers were good enough to rank the 2020 offense as one of the 20 most prolific in college football history, and that dominance keyed the program’s fourth College Football Playoff appearance and helped Ohio State extend its B1G unbeaten streak to 21 games.
Of course, the leader of that offense, Heisman finalist Justin Fields, is off to the NFL, and while there’s plenty of talent in the cupboard, the reality is that there’s almost no data to suggest what any of Ohio State’s QB options are capable of when it comes to leading a college program, let alone one of the best in the country.
C.J. Stroud, one of a host of top 100 recruits Ohio State has vying to replace Fields at quarterback, will get first crack at the job. He separated himself as fall camp progressed. That’s no surprise coming out of the spring, and even the arrival of Quinn Ewers, the 5-star prospect who reclassified from 2022 to 2021, has not changed the calculus for the Buckeyes’ opener at Minnesota.
One of the things Ryan Day loves about Stroud is the way he embraces the competition. Even as a recruit, Stroud didn’t back down from a position battle, viewing the chance to play with other highly-touted recruits as a privilege in a world that sees recruits increasingly viewing competition as a problem. When Stroud was offered by Ohio State, the program already had a top 100 recruit (Jack Miller) committed at the position. Miller, to his credit, also remained committed, but Stroud took his visits — and the chance to battle Miller and others for the job — in stride.
He’s approached a four-man competition (Miller, Ewers and Kyle McCord) in stride in fall camp and has won the heart of his head coach — along with his teammates, who gravitate toward him.
“Every day he’s been competing, taking care of the football, making good decisions. He’s been a leader,” Day told the media last week. “Those are all the traits we’re looking for. And certainly moving the team down the field to score touchdowns is something we’re looking for.”
Stroud still hasn’t attempted a pass in college, but he did have this “wow” run against Michigan State late last season, giving fans at least a glimpse of what he can do with his feet in live action.
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Stroud’s talent as a runner isn’t in doubt. Meanwhile, Day has praised his accurate arm all spring and summer. But it’s one thing to do it in practice, and another altogether to do it at game speed. Ohio State won’t even start to get definitive answers for another 9 days, but that doesn’t make it unfair to ask what reasonable expectations would be for Stroud in 2021.
Evaluating what would be a successful 2021 for Stroud isn’t an exact science. Instead, it involves a consideration of an imprecise combination of the past history of first-year Buckeyes starters, the personnel surrounding Stroud and Ohio State’s lofty program expectations.
Certainly, the talent surrounding Stroud is substantial.
The run game loses Trey Sermon and his outstanding 7.5 yards per carry, but the Buckeyes return Master Teague. And freshman TreVeyon Henderson is expected to be the next big star for Ohio State at running back.
Stroud also has probably the best receiving unit in college football to work with, led by junior Chris Olave, who might be the best wide receiver in the sport. Garrett Wilson gives Olave an All-B1G caliber sidekick, and if you’ve watched Jaxon Smith-Njibga, whether on YouTube or in his limited action last season, you know the former 5-star screams All-America good.
Tight end Jeremy Ruckert will give Stroud a nice safety blanket, too. In other words, Stroud won’t fail because of a dearth of playmakers around him. Instead, he’ll be able to make simple, uncomplicated throws in a high quality scheme designed to get playmakers the ball in space. Typically, that’s a good formula for a 1st-year starter, an especially reassuring one for a redshirt freshman playing his first meaningful college football.
Ohio State also has an impressive history, at least of late, with 1st-year and freshman quarterbacks.
Justin Fields’s first season was at Georgia, but as a 1st-year starter at Ohio State, his numbers were staggering: 67.2 completion percentage, 54 total touchdowns, 3 interceptions and over 3,700 yards of total offense.
J.T. Barrett was almost as impressive as Fields as a 1st-year starter, posting a 64.6 completion percentage, over 3,700 yards of total offense, and adding 45 total touchdowns against only 10 interceptions.
Braxton Miller was a 1st-year starter in 2011, before Urban Meyer. He managed nearly 2,000 yards of offense in less than a full season and posted 20 total touchdowns in the process.
Terrelle Pryor played his career in a different system, but still posted over 2,500 yards of total offense and 19 total touchdowns as a 1st-year starter.
Can Stroud replicate these types of 1st-year numbers?
It would be disappointing — and the Buckeyes would likely turn things over to McCord, Ewers or Miller — if he can’t replicate the Miller or Pryor numbers. But numbers similar to Barrett’s 1st year seem reasonable, especially with the arsenal of elite talent surrounding him. In fact, if Stroud isn’t approaching 3,500 yards of total offense in 2021, the Buckeyes probably aren’t where they want to be on offense. Such is the nature of life as a dual-threat quarterback in a modern spread offense.
The educated guess is he should be able to replicate those numbers. Minnesota and Oregon loom as quality early tests, but the schedule softens significantly after that, with little to challenge Stroud until Penn State visits the Shoe on Halloween weekend. By that time, Stroud will have 7 starts, including a few against 2020 bowl teams, under his belt. Ohio State fans, meanwhile, will have plenty of answers as to what their new quarterback is all about.