This time last year: only questions
Remember a year ago? We were sitting in the early part of the college football offseason, probably still smarting from that beating that the Tide laid on the Buckeyes in the championship game. I was. Of course, I was looking forward to the 2021 season; I’m a fan. But, when it came to Ohio State and their 2021 prospects, I had more question marks than exclamation points punctuating my observations.
First of all, Justin Fields was gone, taking his 70% completion rate and his dominant play with him. He would be replaced by...? Trey Sermon, who came to life at the end of the 2020 season and averaged 7.5 yards per carry, was also gone. Garrett Wilson would be back, and Chris Olave had just shocked all of us with his announcement that he, too, would return and wear the scarlet and gray for another season.
On defense, seven of the top 10 tacklers were leaving: Pete Werner, Tuf Borland, Shaun Wade, Justin Hilliard, Baron Browning, Jonathan Cooper, and Tommy Togiai. Some of these guys had played for a decade, and we were ready to see them move along. But all that experience lost, especially at linebacker and on the line. The other three? Marcus Williamson, not yet thinking of retirement, was sixth in tackles (he would finish 12th in tackles in 2021); Sevyn Banks was ninth, and Josh Proctor was tenth. The latter two would both be hurt for most of the 2021 season, Proctor playing in only two games, Banks in four.
Naturally, I know all about teams like Ohio State “reloading,” but who was going to play? Sure, the recruiting class coming in was great, but what could we count on with so many freshmen?
C.J. Stroud: the new “greatest of all time”?
As the spring wore on, we heard through spring practice rumors that Stroud was looking like the No. 1 quarterback, moving ahead of his classmate Jack Miller and true freshman Kyle McCord. But who was C.J. Stroud? We saw him play a few snaps in 2020, but he didn’t throw a pass. He carried the ball once and ran for a 48-yard touchdown. I figured him for a running quarterback, maybe dual-threat, and worried that Olave and Wilson might be wasted. Not surprisingly, Olave knew more than I did. He knew why he wanted to play in 2021.
From 2018 through 2020, Buckeye fans had gotten spoiled watching the quarterbacks. Dwayne Haskins, in 2018, completed 70% of his 533 passes (in 14 games) for 4831 yards. He tossed an incredible 50 touchdown passes and was intercepted only eight times. Other impressive numbers: he averaged 10.3 yards per passing attempt and finished with a quarterback efficiency rating of 174.1. People were thinking he may have been the greatest Ohio State quarterback of them all.
Until 2019. Enter Justin Fields. If you saw Fields play during his freshman year at Georgia, you probably thought of him as a running QB. Kirby Smart would put him in on third-and-short plays, or plays near the goal line, where his dual threat of running or passing put opponents in a bind. He never did beat out Jake Fromm, though.
At Ohio State, Fields was a different animal altogether. His numbers in 2019 were nearly as good as Haskins’. Fields completed 67.2% of his throws and gained 3273 passing yards in 14 games. He averaged 9.2 yards/attempt, threw 41 touchdown passes, and had only three passes picked off. His rating was higher than Haskins’ at 181.4. In 2020, Fields continued to shine, though in that COVD-19 season he never had a full complement of starters, and, for most of the season, the Bucks lacked a potent rushing attack. Fields led the Buckeyes to the national championship game and was commonly hailed as the greatest Ohio State quarterback of them all.
Enter C.J. Stroud. It didn’t take long to realize that he wasn’t a running quarterback after all. He wasn’t a dual-threat quarterback. He was a passer. In fact, the numbers that he put up in 2021 surpassed Fields’ and Haskins’. In 12 games, Stroud completed nearly 72% of his 441 passes. Under him, the passing game gained 4,435 yards, 369.6 per game, more than Haskins accumulated, though he passed on every down (Didn’t he?). Stroud gained 10.06 yards every time that he dropped back to throw. More than Fields averaged. His 186.6 quarterback rating was also the best of the three. He threw 44 TD passes and was intercepted six times. Is Stroud the greatest Buckeye quarterback of all time?
Stroud in 2022
We never saw Dwayne Haskins in a second season as a starter, and Fields’ second starting season was abbreviated and marred by the virus. What might we expect from Stroud in 2022?
I think that the Rose Bowl dispelled any fears that we might have about losing Olave and Wilson. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming, and Emeka Egbuka will do just fine, thank you. And then there are TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams returning at running back.
2022 will be different from 2021, though, and it will be interesting to see Stroud in, what I think, will be a slightly different role.
As Stroud improved during the season, gaining coverage-reading ability, accuracy, and confidence, Ryan Day’s confidence in him grew also. At the same time, however, the Ohio State running game became inconsistent — sometimes even bad. Day had Stroud throw more. And more. He averaged 36.75 passes a game, not quite Haskins’ 38, but very close.
For this coming season, Day hired offensive line coach Justin Frye away from UCLA for one purpose: to improve the running game. Day has a potentially once-in-a-generation back in Henderson, who, let’s admit it, was hurt by the line’s inability to open anything up for him, especially later in the season against better teams. The line – four enormous tackles and a center – was good at providing a wall of protection for Stroud’s passes, but wasn’t very mobile. They had trouble blocking down a man, pulling, going out for a routine screen pass, or getting up to the next level to block a linebacker. They really couldn’t move. If you watched the Georgia line play during the championship game, you saw the difference. They were as big as Ohio State’s linemen, but they were also able to move.
Frye will change things up. If the running game is successful, and I think that it will be, there will, of course, be more running plays. The team will be better. The offense, as a whole, will be better, but Stroud’s numbers will probably be down.
I expect also to see Stroud playing a lot more snaps under center to support the running attack and vary the look. From there, he might be called upon for a quarterback sneak (I suppose that he must have run a couple this past year, but, frankly, I don’t remember them). Although running the ball is not Stroud’s job, according to him, he may be called upon to do it. I expect more passes to Henderson and Williams on screens, in addition to the wide receiver screens that we’ve seen so much of, and more running plays with wideouts carrying the ball. In short, I expect (and hope) to see a more varied offense.
Don’t get me wrong. Ohio State will still throw plenty on first down and use all of their offensive weapons. With a running game, the team will be better. Is C.J. Stroud a team player who will welcome the change? Yeah, I think that he is. He’s tough, and he’ll do what’s asked of him. He should realize, as well, that the Heisman often goes to the best player on the best team. If the Buckeyes are at the top, so is Stroud.
For the record, here are Bryce Young’s stats for this past year. When he won the Heisman, Bama was the No. 1 seed headed into the playoffs. Young completed 67% of his passes (367/548). He gained 4872 yards, 8.9 yards/attempt. He had 47 TD passes (in 15 games) and seven interceptions. His quarterback rating was 167.4. Stroud was better in every category except the won-loss record.
I’m eager to see Stroud leading a more varied offense. Who’s going to stop them?