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Column: The year-over-year transformation of CJ Stroud

2022 brought a different type of spring game in Columbus.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

In many ways, the spring is the best time to take a step back for a year-over-year performance review. The emotion of last season is behind us and we can appreciate the development that’s happened holistically since last year.

Case in point: In April 2021, all eyes at the Ohio State spring football game were on the quarterback position, as a set of hopefuls vied for their shot at the starting spot following the departure of Justin Fields for an eventual No. 11 pick in the NFL Draft.

It was a given that succeeding Fields would be a daunting task for anyone, but it was also easy to wave off the question. Ohio State was so loaded on offense, that it really didn’t matter who was throwing the ball. A step back (or two) at the quarterback position, in fact, was probably expected.

Yes, this time last year was the start of a very different era than the one we’d left following the 2020 season. Fields had led the Buckeyes for two seasons, and had been the de facto starter essentially since he’d transferred over from Georgia. There was none of the uncertainty that shrouded the spring of 2021.

That’s because, as of one year ago this month, CJ Stroud had not thrown a pass in a collegiate football game.

Nonetheless, the rest is a pleasantly surprising history. Stroud emerged as the favorite to succeed Fields — a position he solidified by August 2021 when he was named the starter for the Buckeyes’ Thursday night season opener on the road at Minnesota. Even so, that appointment (especially through the non-conference schedule) was not without its share of rather unfounded criticism.

Now, a year later, it’s a different story for Stroud and, as a result, the whole football program. An emotional spring game, in which Stroud honored the late Dwayne Haskins, didn’t feature questions of who would be starting come the fall.

And what a difference that year made. After a phenomenal redshirt freshman season, the sophomore Stroud is the undisputed leader of the Ohio State offense heading into 2022. The same fans who were calling for Kyle McChord to replace Stroud after the Buckeyes’ loss to Oregon are eating their words. In other words, we now find ourselves much in the same position as the 2020 preseason, with a known — and very strong — entity starting at quarterback.

Even with missing an early game against Akron, Stroud put up monster numbers for the Buckeyes in 2021. His 44 touchdowns (third in the nation) to just six picks and 4,435 passing yards placed him firmly in the Heisman conversation. To use the term prolific would not be an exaggeration here. In the Rose Bowl against Utah, Stroud became the first player in program history to break the 500-passing yard mark in a single game. Even missing a game, Stroud finished the 2021 season less than 400 yards behind Haskins’ single season passing yards program record.

Stroud’s growth, however, has come in ways that go beyond the statline. The constantly repeated line heading into last season surrounded Stroud’s inexperience, never having thrown a collegiate pass. And yet, he managed the expectations. Even watching some of his early post-game interviews, it was apparent that even Stroud wasn’t used to the spotlight that had been thrust upon him.

Regardless, his poise was never in question (though his rushing ability certainly was). Stroud brought patience in the pocket that even Fields was challenged to match. Despite facing criticism early in the season and sitting out with injury while his backup shined against Akron, Stroud never wavered.

One of the great things about this year-over-year progression is that it truly is a feel good story: “Promising quarterback lives up to his potential and prepares for his next season.” There’s no talk of the transfer portal (why would there be?). Questions around lost weapons at receiver were largely answered after the Rose Bowl. And already, Stroud is projected as a top Heisman contender.

Of course, Stroud plays for Ohio State — which means expectations will never die down. Despite 11 wins and a Rose Bowl victory, last year’s body of work as a team was not a success by the high standards of the program: no Big Ten championship, no College Football Playoff appearance and, perhaps most stinging, no win over Michigan. These deficiencies don’t fall on Stroud’s shoulders alone, or perhaps at all. In Ohio State’s losses to Oregon and Michigan, Stroud still played out of his mind.

The question, then, becomes where we might see Stroud develop from this April to next April — when he is already projected to be a top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Will he become the vocal leader of the team and program? Last season, he had the benefit of sitting behind Chris Olave, the darling of Ohio State football since that touchdown catch against Michigan in 2018, but it’s a pair of cleats Stroud can fill this year.

While there are still opportunities for the young quarterback to continue to develop, this spring provides a chance to appreciate just how much he’s grown and the opportunity to make something really good even better.

Plus, who doesn’t love a feel good story?