COLUMBUS — C.J. Stroud remembers when he was an underdog, before even Ohio State knew who he was.
The early-enrollee quarterback for the Buckeyes was a late-arrival to the pedestal of four- and five-star prospects. At this time last year, he finally crept into the top 600 players nationally, but was nowhere near a five-star product. Then the Elite 11 camp happened.
Stroud won the event, drawing plenty of attention from around the country and giving him a massive ratings bump. Stroud finished as a five-star prospect and one of the top-rated players in Ohio State’s 2020 class.
But he won’t forget the time when he was underrated as a prospect.
“I’ve always, in a sense, been the underdog,” Stroud said in February. “I like that feeling. That just brings the dog out in me. I’ve been through a lot in my life and a lot of hardships. But I feel like if I can get through things, I can get through anything with God by my side.
“These last six months have been crazy. I went from being a two-star nothing to now… The stars, really, when I got my fifth star, I knew it mattered because it’s cool. But it doesn’t matter because look how the media portrayed me back then. I was still good and I played well and I had the skills and attributes to play at a high level, but nobody thought I could.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day will even admit Stroud was overlooked for a majority of his high school football days. The Buckeyes watched Stroud and liked him before he shot up recruiting boards, but even they weren’t entirely aware of his ability before the Elite 11.
But Day knew one thing: the Buckeyes needed a second quarterback in the recruiting class to pair with four-star signal-caller Jack Miller, who had been committed since July 2018. And once Ohio State found Stroud, he was the guy to bring in and compete alongside Miller in the class.
“Yeah, up until [last summer], he was kind of an unknown,” Day said. “We were looking at a lot of different quarterbacks out there and trying to figure out what was the right fit in the room with Jack, and so the more we learned about CJ and certainly the senior year that he had, it goes to show you how talented he is. I think those guys are going to get along great. They’re going to compete.
“They’re both going to get developed and let them fight it out. But it wasn’t like we just flippantly made this decision. There was a lot of conversation about what was the right fit in that room, and we asked some of the players what CJ was like and we got a lot of great feedback.”
Stroud and Miller both enrolled early to get a head-start on learning the playbook and immersing themselves in the Ohio State program. It’s not often two top-tier quarterbacks choose the same school in the same class. And it’s not often both choose to enroll early. But that’s what the Buckeyes have with Miller and Stroud.
Stroud is ready for the challenge.
“I understand. This is not normal,” Stroud said. “I totally understand how people from the outside perspective see it and how it would be portrayed. I respect everybody’s decision and everybody’s opinion. I just let those things handle themselves.”
How those things handle themselves will be decided in the next two seasons. After Justin Fields presumably leaves for the NFL after this season, either Stroud or Miller will take over the program. But whoever claims the upper hand as a backup option this season could be already in line to take that job in 2021.
But Stroud doesn’t view it as a competition between just he and Miller. He is planning to practice in camp as if he’s competing against Fields.
“I always want to compete,” he said. “I want to compete for the starting job. Me and Justin go at it, too. Justin competes with us as well. It’s not like he’s sitting there safe. I’m not saying he is going to lose his spot. I’m competing with anything moving. That’s just my mindset.”
So while Stroud competes with Fields, Miller and Gunnar Hoak in the quarterbacks room, he’ll do so with a large chip on his shoulder. He has no qualms about playing the underdog card. He remembers when he was just that, before the five-star rating and the national attention.
Only now, everyone knows who he is. C.J. Stroud is not much of an underdog anymore.