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Column: All eyes on C.J. Stroud and how other Buckeyes performed at Ohio State’s Pro Day

Ohio State’s Pro Day was once again a circus of NFL personnel members looking to see what Buckeyes they will take at the next level.

NCAA Football: Ohio State Pro Day Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State hosted their annual Pro Day for Buckeyes who declared for the NFL Draft, and the NFL was in town to witness. 30 teams, 10 general managers, and seven coaches were there among an even larger group of NFL personnel to see what the Buckeyes can provide their team in the future.

The headliner of the day was obviously quarterback C.J. Stroud. The projected first round pick was chopping it up with Panthers head coach Frank Reich, quarterback coach Josh McCown, and general manager Scott Fitterer after his throwing session, even sharing a dap up with McCown who seemed sold. Seeing the amount of eyes watching Stroud really set the stage for the magnitude of having a No. 1 pick level quarterback, and this elevates the spotlight on every other player there.

This was not the only reason teams were there. Jaxon Smith-Njigba had a lot to show scouts since he did not run the 40-yard dash at the combine. In addition, seeing the groups of NFL personnel members taking in the defensive linemen and offensive linemen showed that there is value beyond the skill positions.

Overall, this felt like a fantastic day of marketing for an Ohio State team that needs little help garnering the spotlight, but the takeaways are clear. The Buckeyes are still a draft factory for NFL teams, and the stories are all positive coming out of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

All eyes on C.J. Stroud

Ohio State is in the midst of their best run of quarterback play in terms of developing quarterbacks into first round picks. Each progressive QB has been regarded in higher esteem by the NFL, starting with Dwayne Haskins who ended up in the middle of the first round, Justin Fields who’s draft stock took a hit during the process sliding down a few picks, and now Stroud who has laid claim to being the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Seeing the amount of personnel members from the Carolina Panthers — who hold the first overall pick — shows they were there for a reason. When the owner of the team takes the quarterback out to dinner and comes the next day to watch him throw, there is intent behind it. The rest of the organizations there were there to take a look at everyone else. The Panthers were there for Stroud.

In his workout, Stroud’s quarterback coach John Beck wanted to highlight Stroud’s mobility and ability to reset his feet in the pocket to deliver strikes down field. Stroud had a few misses, but the overall performance only had five incompletions with two drops. One of the misses was a throw rolling to his left, but Stroud bounced back immediately.

Watching the NFL Network broadcast, hearing Daniel Jeremiah, Steve Smith, Bucky Brooks, and David Carr talk, the major takeaway they all had was his consistency, which was highlighted in this throw at the end of the day.

“It’s as good of a workout as I’ve seen, whether I was coaching in the NFL or now in last couple years here at Ohio State,” Ryan Day said after the workout.

The comments from the head ball coach himself and former NFL quarterback coach should say it all. But the real quote of the day – and I’m paraphrasing – was Josh McCown telling Stroud that they’d find a court to shoot around at when Stroud finds a place to live in Charlotte.

The last point was something I saw on ESPN after the Pro Day, Louis Riddick mentioned that Stroud orchestrated his pro day. Yes, his quarterback coach was there, but when it came to organizing the receivers, that was all Stroud. The value of showing his commitment to his craft and his ability to lead players in an unfamiliar situation showed a level of maturity that warrants being the No. 1 overall pick.

Stroud has it all, but yesterday he locked up his place in the top-2 picks of the NFL Draft. At this point, he has virtually locked himself into Ohio State history as the Buckeyes’ only No. 1 overall pick at quarterback and first since Orlando Pace.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba solidifies first round grade

For Smith-Njigba, the goal was to show off his speed and to legitimize his combine performance from an agility stand point. Ohio State fans know what he brings to the table, but the NFL sent a lot of scouts this week, and a huge point of emphasis of that group was to see what Smith-Njigba can do.

He was the main pass catcher for Stroud in Stroud’s first year as a starter, and he was the main pass catcher today. The former leading receiver showed his natural hands and ball tracking ability that made him the Rose Bowl record holder for receiving yards. The real test for him today was showing that he had the top end speed to fully define himself as a No. 1 receiver in the NFL and not just a slot receiver.

The official time on the 40 for Smith-Njigba was a 4.48. That wasn’t the same blazing speed Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson showed last year, but Smith-Njigba’s short area quickness combined with that forty time make him the best testing receiver of the group. The 3.9 short shuttler and 6.1 three cone drills were the fastest at the NFL combine, and him just not being slow on Wednesday was enough to raise his draft stock to surefire first round pick.

With Jordan Addison unable to workout due to the first rain in Los Angeles in 60 years, and some of the other top receivers having some disappointing combines, there is a real shot Smith-Njigba rises up to WR1 in the draft.

Young receivers have a chance to shine

With Smith-Njigba being the only draft eligible receiver at the Pro Day, the Buckeyes had to use their crop of pass catchers who are still in school for Ohio State. Similarly to when Justin Fields threw to Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Stroud threw to Marvin Harrison Jr., Cade Stover, Xavier Johnson, and Jayden Ballard.

The player that was the most sought after from a viewing stand point was Marvin Harrison Jr., who is already projected by many NFL experts as the first receiver off the board in 2024. That is lofty, but hearing how NFL Scouts adored the stories about his constant work on the JUGs machine in addition to his play on the field, there is probably a serious possibility he is the highest receiver taken since Amari Cooper was taken at No. 4.

For an Ohio State storyline in 2023, Jayden Ballard looked incredibly comfortable. With Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming both sidelined, he got the call to step up when it came to catching passes. His speed was obvious and he looked natural tracking the ball down field. If you’re looking for a spring storyline and a potential fall breakout candidate, look no further than Ballard.

This time next year we’ll be seeing a different list of names showing out for NFL teams, and we’ll see another young group looking to make a first impression.

Tanner McAlister showed NFL teams he’s a viable option

To me the surprise of the day was McAlister running the fastest forty time with an official 4.44. Not to say that McAlister was going to run slow, but for all the Buckeyes not projected in the first round, he might have had the biggest performance of the day.

McAlister had an up-and-down time at Ohio State, but after the day was over said he will be having a private meeting with the Dallas Cowboys. Other teams of note that could be interested are the Steelers, Patriots, Dolphins, and Ravens looking at scheme fit. He can play in the nickel role at the next level, which has become a vital part of every NFL defense.

Add to that his 22 reps on the bench press at 225 pounds with the fastest 3-cone drill of the day, and you have an NFL defensive back. If he can show that he is able to play as a free safety in interviews and workouts, his draft value can climb ending up as a surprise day two pick.

Other notable performances

  • Cam Brown did not run a 4.2 forty yard dash like he alluded to a few years ago, but posted a respectable 4.5 time. Where the day was really important for Brown was showing his mobility and hip flexibility in position drills. This will be an interesting name to follow due to his spotty production at Ohio State and his solid athletic profile for the position.
  • Zach Harrison, Taron Vincent, and Jerron Cage ran through combine drills and position drills. Outside of the athletic testing, the goal in these drills is the ability to show fluid movement in a variety of change of direction drills. None of them bombed, but the overall performance did not do anything to raise draft statuses.
  • Palaiae Gateote was one of the players who did the most work on the day. He did the full combine at the pro day, and then participated in both defensive back drills and defensive line drills. Due to the limited film, this was an incredibly important day for Gateote and hopefully he did enough to get a camp invite.
  • Mitch Rossi did not run a 4.3 forty, but he looked smooth catching passes out of the backfield. With the modern H-Back role being valued by almost three quarters of the NFL, there is an outside chance he finds work in the league. Today showed he has the athleticism to play at the next level.

After the Pro Day was over, David Carr talked to C.J. Stroud and said the hard part was over. The next step for these players is getting a more intimate look at the teams potentially drafting them. Seeing the final juncture of time between Ohio State players last moment with the program and their next steps is always interesting.

All eyes on the program and the Buckeyes performing did not disappoint the NFL personnel in attendance. For Ohio State, whenever the momentum seems to subside there is always another event that elevates the program back into the spotlight. The pro day did just that and also elevated the players involved.

The final step in this cycle is the NFL Draft, and the Buckeyes will once again extend their lead of first round picks and potentially have their first No. 1 overall pick since 1997. There is a lot of fun in this process, and now that the work is over hopefully the players can enjoy the final steps of their journey.

For the Buckeyes and the players in the draft, April is about to be another significant advertisement for the program. Then it’s on to the next set of players ready to make their own legacy at Ohio State.