Even as a freshman in high school, C.J. Stroud, who was then a backup quarterback on the varsity team, had a valuable suggestion for his offensive coordinator.
The stakes were high for Rancho Cucamonga High School in California as they faced Mission Viejo in a crucial playoff game. From the sidelines, Stroud keenly observed the movements of one of the opposing defenders.
During halftime, Stroud shared his observations with the playcaller, Mark Verti.
“Coach, this corner is jumping on the out [route],” Stroud explained. “We should do an out and up on him.”
Verti trusted the insights of the 15-year-old quarterback. On the first drive of the second half, he called the play. The cornerback fell for the double move, leaving the receiver wide open.
“He likes the aspect of outsmarting the opponent, how football allows you to outsmart people,” Verti, who later became Stroud’s head coach, told FOX Sports. “He likes that part of football and how to game plan people and how it’s not just the physical enjoyment of it, but being able to use your mind and game plan the whole chess match portion of it.”
During the spring, draft experts raised concerns about the No. 2 overall pick based on reports of poor results on the S2 Cognition Test, which measures an athlete’s ability to process information quickly and accurately. However, coaches and teammates who have worked with Stroud raved about his football IQ in interviews with FOX Sports.
Their praise offers insight into what the Houston Texans could expect from Stroud, their potential franchise quarterback, filling a void they haven’t had since Deshaun Watson.
“I’m viewing this opportunity like it’s one of a kind, because it is,” Stroud told reporters last month. “I know the city of Houston hasn’t seen a franchise quarterback in a long time and that’s something I hope I become.”
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At Ohio State, star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba often sat next to Stroud during team meetings and marveled at the quarterback’s ability to effortlessly process and recall vast amounts of information. If a teammate was unsure about their assignment on a play, Stroud could provide them with the correct answer every single time, according to Smith-Njigba.
“If [Stroud] doesn’t know, then the coach didn’t communicate it well or didn’t tell us because that’s the only reason [he wouldn’t know],” said the Seattle Seahawks’ rookie first-round pick. “You might think he’d forget, but he never forgets—whether it’s plays, life, or something someone said three years ago.”
At Rancho Cucamonga, Stroud didn’t become a full-time starter until his junior year, but adjusting playcalls was second nature to him. If the defense overloaded one side with four defenders and the Cougars had a three-by-three protection set, he recognized it before the snap and directed the running back to pick up the extra defender. If the play was designed to go to the overloaded side, he audibled to the other side. He not only saw opportunities but also knew which plays would best exploit them.
Between drives, he would diligently study the defense’s adjustments on his iPad and suggest plays to his coach. His suggestions often paid off.
“By his senior year, his whole knowledge of football — from the protections to the coverages to what plays we have that would fit the openings that we see on the field — it was just unmatched by any QB I’ve ever coached before,” Verti said. “His spatial awareness was off the charts.”
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Stroud’s former coaches attribute his basketball background, his first love, to enhancing his skills as a quarterback. In high school, he played two years of basketball and primarily served as a small and power forward in Rancho Cucamonga’s small-ball lineup. He possessed good shooting skills, handled the ball well, and thrived on having control of the game.
Bill Burke, his basketball coach, believed Stroud had the potential to play Division I basketball if he had pursued it.
“One of our better players, he crossed him over and [the player] fell down,” recalled Burke. “He said, ‘That’s the only reason you put me on the team.’ I said, ‘No, you’re just a freak of an athlete.'”
During his junior year, Stroud hit a fadeaway, buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer in a CIF state playoff game against Camarillo, a team featuring future UCLA star and projected 2023 NBA Draft pick Jaime Jaquez Jr.
“He thought he was KD [Kevin Durant] in high school,” laughed Tony Wilson, an offensive assistant for the Rancho Cucamonga football team.
The fast breaks and cutting in basketball helped Stroud develop a knack for identifying passing windows as a quarterback. However, there was a time when Stroud, known as an elite pocket passer, was more inclined to run. His father, Coleridge, encouraged it. But Tojo Munford, Stroud’s youth coach, emphasized staying in the pocket and drilled it into him. For years, Munford instructed Stroud to throw to where the receivers would be, not where they were, laying the foundation for his anticipatory throws, which have earned him accolades.
Even at the age of 7 when Munford first met Stroud, he recognized the natural ability the young quarterback had to throw the ball.
Stroud has always been a lead-by-example type of player. Former coaches recall that he would not hesitate to hold teammates accountable, even if they were star players, for being late to practices or workouts. He held them to the same high standards he set for himself.
After a disappointing performance in a basketball playoff game, he apologized to the coaches for his play.
In football, Stroud suffered an injury in the first game of his junior season, and the team slumped to an 0-4 record without him. However, he took on a player-coach role, encouraging teammates to watch film and stay united. Rancho Cucamonga rallied, winning seven consecutive games.
During passing drills in Rancho Cucamonga’s football practices, Stroud made a point to throw to every receiver, not just the starters.
“In games, it felt like he’d make sure certain people got touchdowns,” Verti said. “Like, ‘Oh, they haven’t got one yet? We’re up by three or four touchdowns. Let’s get this guy the ball and let’s score a touchdown.'”
As Stroud begins his journey in Houston, expectations are sky-high. He firmly believes that pressure does not exist and that there are no limits to how great he can become. He understands the importance of leadership, having served as the quarterback for one of college football’s most prominent programs.
“That’s something I think I bring to the table very well, coming from a place like Ohio State where [as the] quarterback … you’re right under LeBron,” Stroud joked at his introductory press conference. “You’re the leader of the whole state.”
After achieving success in LeBron James’ home state, Stroud exudes confidence.
“When there’s any doubt from anyone else, it’s going to sharpen his tools,” Wilson said. “He’s going to be in the lab, on the field, in the film room, in the weight room, in the playbook even harder. Not only for his team, but for himself to make sure he’s doing his part for his team.
“He knows that if he does his part,” Wilson added, “that’s going to close out all the doubters by itself.”