Ohio State’s CJ Stroud: From Little Man to Heisman Trophy Favorite

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Even from a football field away, the little boy’s arm caught the eye of youth coach Willie Munford, so he went over to have a closer look. He had never seen a kid that young, certainly no older than 8, throw a soccer ball with such abandon.

But after Munford started coaching CJ Stroud, other qualities leapt beyond his years until he started calling him “Little Man.”

At 10 a.m., Stroud led the Alta Loma Warriors to prayer before kickoff. Whenever games got a little crazy, Munford recalled telling his teammates in the group, “Everybody calm down.”

“CJ was always mature,” Munford said in a phone interview. “Even when he was a kid and doing kid stuff, he knew what he wanted. He wanted to be the best quarterback there was.”

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Flash-forward a decade, and Stroud, 21, is a 6-3, 218-pound Heisman Trophy favorite who will star in Saturday’s biggest college football game of the season when his No. 2 host finishes the Ohio State Buckeyes ranked 2nd is 3rd Michigan.

It’s the first time since 2006 that both teams are undefeated (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) and headed for their annual clash.

Saturday’s winner will secure a spot in the Big Ten championship game and almost certainly the College Football Playoff.

For Stroud, it’s a chance to add to his already impressive case from Heisman (35 touchdowns, four interceptions). It’s also a chance for him and Ohio State to avenge last season’s 42-27 loss at Ann Arbor.

“We’ve been thinking about this game for 365 days, so we’re excited,” Stroud said during a radio interview on 97.1 The Fan after the Buckeyes’ tougher-than-expected win over Maryland last week.

Stroud wasn’t his bright self against the Terrapins, managing just one touchdown on 18 passes out of 30, but he managed his composure and the critical moments of the game.

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The Buckeyes offense can expect a harder hit against Michigan’s top-ranked defense, which promises to make the 118th edition of the iconic rivalry a telling gauge of Stroud’s progress as NFL scouts assess the merits of the sophomore starter as a potential draft pick Rate Pick #1.

“His leadership and consistency has to be on display for 60 minutes for Ohio State to beat Michigan,” ESPN analyst and former Buckeyes quarterback Kirk Herbstreit said during a conference call with reporters this week. “There will be moments in this game where he will play really well; There can be moments in this game when Michigan’s defense makes a turnover or whatever it may be. But there will be an ebb and flow in the game. How he maintains his poise, how he maintains his leadership and pushes this team to find a path to victory – that’s the culmination of all that growth.”

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Both teams go into Saturday’s game with questions.

Michigan’s Heisman running back contender Blake Corum injured his left knee in the Wolverines’ 19-17 win over Illinois, which was sealed with a 35-yard field goal 9 seconds from time.

Ohio State’s explosive passing game hasn’t dazzled lately. Stroud was only held for a touchdown against Maryland. It was the third game of the last four in which he scored just one or no goal.

In Week 6 against Michigan State, Stroud’s arm was golden as he set a school record with six touchdown passes.

But no touchdown throw meant more to him than the eight-yard smack he threw to Kamryn Babb, his first and best friend on the squad, in the closing minutes of the Buckeyes’ Nov. 12 rampage over Indiana.

Two days after Stroud, an 18-year-old freshman, arrived on campus 2,000 miles from his home in Southern California, Babb, a high school student on the team, introduced himself and asked Stroud if he had found a church yet.

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Stroud had grown up in the church but strayed from his faith after his father, his staunchest ally and advisor, was jailed on charges including auto theft, kidnapping, and robbery while Stroud was in middle school. Still, he accepted Babb’s invitation to join him that Sunday.

The experience saved his life, Stroud told The Pivot Podcast, hosted by former NFL stars Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor, earlier this season.

“When my pops left, I didn’t want anything to do with God. I was bitter, I didn’t want to go to church,” Stroud said.

But as he entered Babb’s church on his second weekend at Columbus, Stroud said, he fell to his knees and wept, overcome with emotion and the conviction he drew from a sacred place. He is no longer estranged from his father who introduced him to football and reads every word that is written about his youngest son.

“When I talk to him, it’s nothing but love,” Stroud said on the podcast. “It’s not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s not about football. He loves me because I am his son… There is no ill will towards my father. i love you dad But I love my mom too. I wouldn’t be here without her.”

The belief Stroud and Babb share is only part of what made that touchdown throw so meaningful. The other part is their shared drive to overcome adversity in all its forms.

In Babb’s case, it was consecutive knee injuries that sidelined him for three of his five seasons and kept the former hot recruit without a college catch until November 12.

Late in the fourth quarter against Indiana, Stroud later recalled, he read the coverage, saw an opportunity for his brother, prayed he “wouldn’t screw it up” and fired.

Babb stretched out his arms, grabbed the goal and fell to his knees in prayer before disappearing into a sea of ​​hugs from his teammates.

“I don’t care if I threw eight picks in this game,” Stroud said after the 56-14 win, explaining his determination to get the ball to Babb. He expanded the bond between all of the Buckeyes this season, adding, “I’m willing to fight for my brother if that means I have to play with one hand and one foot… Everyone on this team is hungry and supporting him.” others. ”

When Munford watches Stroud on TV, he sees the same determination that characterized him as a youth.

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The little man never played; He never sulked or stormed off in frustration.

“I don’t think CJ wanted to disappoint people,” Munford said. “He was grounded. I don’t even think there was anyone who didn’t like him. He never complained; his mother never complained. It was ‘Okay, Coach!’”

If Stroud gave his youth coach cause for concern, it was because he was being too hard on himself after a bad game or throw.

“I’d tell him, ‘CJ, Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming! You’re 12!’” Munford said.

Rancho Cucamonga High wasn’t Southern California’s Mater Dei football powerhouse. It didn’t draw the crowds of Texas teams. Still, it taught Stroud perseverance and forced him to wait until his junior year for that entry-level job.

It was Stroud’s strong showing at the 2019 Elite 11 camp that turned recruiters’ heads. His mother, Kimberly, cried when his first scholarship offer from Mel Tucker, then-Coach of Colorado, arrived in his junior year. Overtures kept pouring out.

Stroud invited Munford to Ohio State’s autograph party, where the youth coach reminded him what he told him before every Warriors game: “No matter what, cheer up.”

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Stroud did just that, forging new resolve after last season’s defeat in Michigan and taking on the alpha role this season.

“In the off-season, he became the guy that really broke through by getting guys to show up seven-a-side [workouts]Getting guys to push themselves in June, July and August when it’s hot,” Herbstreit said. “He was that guy and he wasn’t the year before. And so is his team.”

The Buckeyes couldn’t be in better hands from Babb’s point of view.

“He’s a great quarterback,” Babb said after the win in Indiana. “I wouldn’t want anyone but him as our leader. He brings our team together. And who he is – I’m just honored to be his brother and to be by his side.”

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