Ohio State’s offense was statistically one of the best in the country last year, and a major part of that equation was the improvement in quarterback play from C.J. Stroud over the duration of the season.
Stroud played through the first three games of the new campaign with an injury, and never looked quite right. After sitting out the Akron game to heal, the young signal caller came back with doubters looking for a change at the position. From that point on, Stroud never left any doubt in his abilities. Now, Stroud is a projected top-2 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and is one of the betting favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. His improvement led to a dynamic final act in the Rose Bowl, leading Ohio State back to win against Utah in Pasadena.
Once he fully took the reins and became one of the best passers in the country, the Buckeyes really took off as a team. His traits and confidence changed the entire Ohio State offense, and his development is one of the most significant aspects of why Buckeye fans feel as though this can be a national championship team in 2022. Today, we’re going to look at where Stroud started, and the development he went through during his first year as a starter.
Early Season Struggles
Expectations for Ohio State’s offense were incredibly high heading into the season, and that put immediate pressure on Stroud to excel early. Despite being a first-year starter, the Buckeyes returned multiple players on the offensive line and two elite receivers in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. For Stroud, there was no time to grow with a tough road conference matchup in game one and their marquee out of conference match up against Oregon the following week.
With all that being said, in hindsight, there were bound to be growing pains. In the first few games, Stroud was not the anticipatory thrower that he was at the end, and he made some really questionable decisions in the first three games. After he sustained the A.C. joint sprain, his accuracy struggled as well.
In this first example, Ohio State is in the red zone and the situation is 3rd-and-7 from the 15 yard line. The Buckeyes need to score, and they get the look they were expecting. Jaxon Smith-Njigba lines up in the slot, and Oregon is in their Cover-4 Man Match, meaning the safety over Smith-Njigba is watching him to see if he comes vertical. If Smith-Njigba releases vertically, the safety is now in man-coverage and the corner is solo covering the outside receiver.
This gives Smith-Njigba the leverage to win the route, and Stroud just has to deliver a strike to Smith-Njigba on the outside. Stroud drops back and has decent protection. His eyes are working left-to-right. Once the corner commits to the outside receiver, this means the slot receiver is going to be open and Stroud should be releasing the ball at the break. Stroud hesitates, pressure gets in his face, and he releases off the back foot which sails the ball. This happened quite a few times early, and once the season progressed, his confidence in throws like this made them second nature.
Questionable decision making
The other aspect that Stroud struggled with at times was his decision making early in the year. This led to some questionable throws and interceptions. Against Tulsa, this was part of the reason the game ended up being closer than it should have been (the defense didn’t help much in that regard either). In the play below, the throw he makes is just head scratching to say the least, and was really at the peak of the anti-Stroud rhetoric.
Tulsa for what they are actually has a pretty diverse back end when it comes to their coverages, which is not great for young quarterbacks. Tulsa ends up dropping eight defenders initially and brings a late fourth rusher. There is one receiver down field on the left side against three defenders at different levels. Stroud throws up a floating ball and it gets intercepted. This is the epitome of young quarterback play, and Stroud did grow after immensely this game.
After his return from the resting during the Akron game, Stroud came out motivated and looking like the quarterback that was being hyped up during the offseason. The Buckeyes destroyed Rutgers, and Stroud played a near perfect game. His next stretch of games he improved every single week up until a stumble against Nebraska.
Once the Buckeyes got passed Rutgers, there was a whole new Stroud from a passing standpoint. He was throwing with anticipation and touch, but was still not a perfect product, with a mix of some first year quarterback mistakes.
Anticipation & Using Eyes
One of the most impactful improvements in Stroud’s game was his anticipation. Being confident in seeing what is coming versus what is happening is a major separator between good quarterbacks and great quarterbacks. When a quarterback becomes a great anticipator, this also allows them to weaponize their eyes and move safeties around on the back end.
Against Indiana, Stroud made one of the best throws from a quarterback last season. Indiana is in man-coverage with a middle safety playing 1-high. Smith-Njigba is once again in the slot, and once he clears the defender in front of him, he breaks in his route in front of the safety. Stroud releases this ball before Smith-Njigba comes out of his break and drops the ball in right in front of Indiana’s free safety. The reason the safety was late is because Stroud used his eyes to move him away from where Smith-Njigba was going. This was peak quarterbacking from Stroud.
Confident decision making
The last play could have also been used here, but looking at plays from Stroud developing is the goal here. Against Penn State, Stroud made some magic happen, and this is when his confidence really started to show.
Ohio State is running a shot play. The Buckeyes run play-action with an OT trap look setting up the protection. Thayer Munford (No. 75) crosses the formation and gets to his man a little late. Stroud remains calm and uses his feet in the pocket to set up Munford’s block. Stroud climbs the pocket and delivers a confident strike downfield to Chris Olave for a touchdown.
End of Season
By the end of the season, Stroud was not a point guard. He was not the reason for offensive struggles, and was making his name a household one. Despite the loss to Michigan, Stroud found his footing and was carrying the offense at times due to the struggles in the run game. In the Rose Bowl, he showcased what he had become, and with the help from his classmate Jaxon Smith-Njigba, they dismantled the Utah defense.
The throws he was able to make against Michigan State, Michigan State, and Utah highlighted his development. His fundamentals and confidence soared, which translated to him making a trip to New York. Now if he can build on his strong finish against Utah, Stroud could end up being the best quarterback in the country, and the clips below are a big reason why there is that belief across the country.
Accuracy & Ball Placement
Stroud became an anticipatory thrower of the football and got really dialed in from the pocket as the season went on. This was on full display against Utah in the Rose Bowl. Stroud needed to be at his best and was. In the first play, we get to see him really get rolling and this throw set the course for the rest of the game.
The term “go out there and get a bucket when you need,” is used for the elite scorers in basketball who are also clutch. In this case, Stroud goes and gets a bucket. In a straight drop back, Stroud gets man-to-man coverage. The play on the outside is smash-fade, which means the outside receiver is running a hitch and the middle receiver is running a fade route. In this case Marvin Harrison Jr. is running the fade. Harrison Jr. gets outside and gains a step on the receiver, and Stroud is going there the whole way. Stroud delivers a strike and the ball placement takes the defender completely out of this play, highlighting how far Stroud progressed to that point.
The last play, and arguably the biggest play of Ohio State’s season. In a tie game with momentum in Ohio State’s hand, it was time to put Utah away. This play came down to Stroud having confidence, touch, and arm strength to pull off this tight window throw to take the lead.
The play is the same combination as the previous one with the Smash Fade. The difference is the defender is in great position on Smith-Njigba. There is only one place this ball can be thrown, and Stroud delivers the ball into a tiny bucket. Smith-Njigba still needed to make an incredible catch, but the ball placement made this possible. This throw capped off an incredible performance, and set the course for Ohio State gaining some confidence heading into the offseason.
For a first-year quarterback, the expectations for C.J. Stroud were sky high, and his situation was much more comparable to Dwayne Haskins’ first year than Justin Fields’. Both Stroud and Haskins had historically bad defenses and had to carry the weight of the team on their backs. The difference between the two was Stroud had limited game action going into his first year starting, and also had a first season that was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic which also stunted his growth on the practice field. With all that going against him, there should have been expectations for more hiccups in his first season starting.
Given the situation, Stroud rolled through the punches and silenced any doubters when it came to his quarterbacking ability. The one blemish he will have make up for is the loss to Michigan, but if he does that, his name will go down in history with the best of them. The talent is there, and looking at last season he got better every week as a passer. The NFL is already taking notice, and now time will tell how good he can truly become.
If he can continue the trajectory and take his game to the level where everything looks effortless, he will definitely end up in New York and even potentially walk away with the most distinguished honor in college football. On top of that, the Buckeyes will be hoping to ride his play to a national title.