C.J. Stroud is still defining his legacy at Ohio State

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — During C.J. Stroud‘s second trip to New York in as many years as a Heisman Trophy finalist, he noticed his picture on some of the billboards in Times Square and took a moment to reflect.

“I was talking to my mom and my cousins and my brother and my sister who came with me, and who would have thought? Honestly, like, I’m not even supposed to be here,” Stroud said.

Stroud is 21-3 as Ohio State’s starting quarterback. He has collected back-to-back honors as the offensive player of the year in the Big Ten from The Associated Press (he shared it in 2021) and the junior is considered one of the top NFL prospects at his position.

But he’s been on the losing end of both meetings against archrival Michigan and the Buckeyes did not reach the Big Ten title game in either season with him behind center, despite his spectacular numbers. He finished third in the Heisman voting this year after finishing fourth a year ago.

Crucial losses and questions surrounding Ohio State’s offense have lingered around Stroud’s legacy, notably this season amid the absence of playmakers like wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba or TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams at running back due to injuries.

Stroud isn’t putting his head down. He hears the skeptics and said it’s unjust for others to criticize him and his teammates beyond the football field as a result of injuries or an outcome on the scoreboard.

“Of course I take it very serious,” Stroud said. “A lot of people would just watch the game and be on the couch. I live it. Every single day. I’m the one who’s getting laughed at on TV and things like that, and so it’s somewhat unfair that people have that type of opinion.”

Stroud’s place in the Ohio State record books is already well decorated.

The California native moved into the No. 2 spot this season among Ohio State quarterbacks with 81 passing touchdowns and 7,775 yards. Some of that went to the likes of wide receivers such as Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who became first round NFL draft picks last April, and Marvin Harrison Jr., who caught 12 scores this season.

Harrison said he admires Stroud’s skills and leadership and that he’s “never seen anything like it.”

“We all look to C.J. when things are going good and bad,” Harrison said. “He always rallies us together, whether that’s halftime, we’re down or before the game. He’s always talking to us, making sure that we kind of have the right mindset going into everything.”

Stroud has participated in community events around Ohio State and Columbus that extend his influence beyond the field. On and off the gridiron, Stroud said he is proud of what he’s accomplished.

“I’m so blessed in my life to have so many people I’ve inspired,” Stroud said. “That’s the thing that keeps me going is the kids that I see, and I think that’s why I’m really on this earth and that’s why I have a God-given talent is to inspire kids. Inspire not only kids, but adults as well who want to do great things in their lives.”

No. 4 Ohio State (11-1) got a second chance of sorts and landed in the College Football Playoff, where it will face No. 1 Georgia (13-0) in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. The winner will play either TCU or Michigan for the national championship Jan. 9.

Stroud’s relationship with coach Ryan Day has strengthened since the quarterback’s arrival in 2020. Day recruited Stroud, coached him within the quarterbacks room and stood beside him in moments of adversity and triumph, and the Heisman ceremony gave him a chance to reflect on another shining moment.

“He’s given a lot to Ohio State, and certainly that was a great opportunity for me with his family and get recognized for that” Day said Dec. 13. “He’s going to work really hard over the next 2 1/2 weeks to play his best football.”

Stroud thinks the Buckeyes’ semifinal game against the Bulldogs will have “a lot of emotions” and one many have waited for “since last year.” Whether he departs for the NFL afterward is something he has yet to determine.

For now, his time at Ohio State is unfinished – and he has a chance to complete it with a storybook ending.

“I love being a Buckeye,” Stroud said. “No one can take that away from me.”

Signing day ends recruiting sagas for QB Rashada, CB McClain

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The opening of college football’s traditional signing period for high school prospects brought an apparent end to two of the cycle’s most notable recruitments.

Blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada, who signed with Florida in December and then asked to be released from the commitment when a name, imagine and likeness deal fell through, announced Wednesday he is going to Arizona State.

“Glad to truly be home!” Rashada posted on Twitter.

Also in the Pac-12, Cormani McClain, previously committed to Miami, signed with Colorado to make it two straight years that coach Deion Sanders has landed a five-star cornerback.

Rashada’s recruitment made national headlines and became something of a cautionary tale for the college football’s NIL era.

The four-star recruit from California was the focal point of a recruiting fight between Miami and Florida. That led to a bidding war between booster-run collectives that try to secure sponsorship deals for athletes from those schools.

Rashada had originally given a verbal commitment to Miami, but flipped to Florida and signed with the Gators during the early signing period after being offered an NIL deal that could have been worth more than $13 million.

When it became clear that Gator Collective, which is not part of the University of Florida or its athletic department, did not have the money to fund the deal, Rashada asked to be released from his national letter of intent. Florida granted the request.

Gators coach Billy Napier told reporters he could not provide details on what happened with Rashada, but did say he did not anticipated hearing from the NCAA about possible violations of recruiting rules.

“I think the reality is the current structure of NIL with third parties being involved, with agents being involved, with marketing representatives, with lawyers, with collectives, very fluid and I think a very unique dynamic,” Napier said. “I think ultimately NIL is a strength for the Gators.”

Rashada becomes the highest-profile high school recruit in new Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham‘s first signing class. The 32-year-old Phoenix native and Arizona State graduate was hired in December.

Rashada’s father, Harlen, was part of Arizona State’s football team in the 1990s. Jaden Rashada called ASU his “childhood dream school.”

“Can’t wait to carry on the family name at the University and start my journey. Forks up!” Rashada posted.

McClain’s recruitment was more traditional in its twists and turns. One of the highest-rated players in the country, he was pursued by most of college football’s most successful programs, including Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

The Lakeland, Florida, product committed to Miami last fall, but even then it seemed he might be lured away from the Hurricanes by the Crimson Tide.

Then Coach Prime took over in Boulder, Colorado, and changed the game.

Last year, Sanders made recruiting history when he swayed five-star cornerback Travis Hunter to renege on a verbal commitment to Florida State and sign with Jackson State.

Never before had a player rated that highly signed at a school that plays in Division I football’s second tier, the Championship Subdivision.

Colorado hired Sanders to turn around a program that has been stuck near the bottom of the Pac-12 for most of the last decade. McClain visited Boulder last month and soon after committed to become the first five-star to sign with the Buffaloes in more than a decade.

He made it official early on signing day. McClain will join Hunter, who transferred to Colorado, in the Buffs’ secondary.

“First time CU signed two five-star players in the same class,” Sanders said. “Same position, by the way, and both of them are dogs. I can’t wait to see them play together.”

SOUTH CAROLINA SPEEDSTER

Nyckoles Harbor from Washington was one of the few five stars, as rated by 247 Sports’ composite rankings, who entered signing day uncommitted with real mystery surrounding where he would end up.

The decision came down to Oregon and South Carolina and the Gamecocks were the choice for the 6-foot-5, 225-pound edge rusher who might wind up playing receiver in college.

Harbor runs track, has posted elite times in the 100 and 200 and has Olympic aspirations.

STILL DUCK SEASON

Oregon drew a lot of attention during the early signing period, winning a handful of high-profile recruiting battles to be in position to have the Pac-12’s highest rated class.

The Ducks missed out on Harbor but had one more big score, landing four-star cornerback Rodrick Pleasant. The California player picked Oregon over Pac-12 rival – at least for another year – Southern California.

“Ultimately, we want to sign the best players everywhere but if you can win in your footprint, and our footprint, certainly California is part of that, we want to have success there and think this year we proved that we’re able to do that,” Lanning told reporters.

USC, which moves to the Big Ten after the 2023-24 school year, did get a signing day win with four-star tight end Walker Lyons.

FINAL SCORE

Alabama had already locked up the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for the 10th time in 13 years before the February signing period.

The Tide landed nine five stars. There were only 39 players given a five-star rating in the class, according to 247’s composite.

Two-time defending national champion Georgia was second, followed by Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State. The rest of the top 10 were LSU, Miami, Oregon, Tennessee and Notre Dame.

While there has been much angst over the impact of NIL money being used as a recruiting inducement, the early results suggests it isn’t changing which schools are coming away with the highest-rated classes.

Using a five-year average of recruiting rankings from the 247 composite, here are the top 20 schools from 2017-21.

1. Alabama, 2 (average ranking)

2. Georgia, 2.2

3. Ohio State, 5

4. LSU, 6.8

5. Clemson, 8.2

6. Oklahoma 9.2

7. Texas A&M, 9.6

8. Texas, 10.8

9. Florida, 11.0

10. Oregon, 11.4.

11. Auburn, 11.6

12. Michigan, 11.6

13. Notre Dame, 12.4

14. Penn State, 13.8

15. Miami, 15.0

16. Florida State, 16.0

17. Tennessee, 16.8

18. USC, 19.6

19. Washington, 20.0

20. Nebraska 20.6.

Over the past two years (2022 and ’23), 17 of the top 20 teams remain in the top 20. USC was knocked out by an unusually low 70th place in 2022.

1. Alabama, 1.5

2. Georgia, 2.5

3. Texas, 4

4. Ohio State, 4.5

5. Oklahoma, 6

6. Texas A&M, 8

7. Notre Dame, 8.5

8. LSU, 9

9. Penn State, 9.5

10. Clemson, 10.5

11. Oregon, 10.5

12. Miami, 11.5

13. Tennessee, 13

14. Michigan, 13.5

15. Florida, 16

16. Auburn, 19

17. North Carolina, 19

18. Florida State, 20

19. South Carolina, 20

20. Kentucky. 22.5

Coach Prime comes up big in 1st recruiting class at Colorado

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
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BOULDER, Colo. — Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders proudly recited the numbers from his first recruiting class at Colorado.

Two five-star recruits. A No. 21 overall class ranking, which was the highest in 15 years, he pointed out. A top-five class from the transfer portal, according to 247 Sports.

Then, a quick reminder – he’s not done gathering talent. Not by a long shot. This is just a brief pause, he teased, with possibility of more skilled players arriving sometime after the spring.

It’s taken Sanders less than two months in Boulder not only to revamp a downtrodden program but to give a starved fan base something else – hope.

“We’re not recruiting just no ordinary Tom, Dick and Harry,” Sanders said Wednesday on signing day. “We recruited some guys that can light up the scoreboard and prevent touchdowns from occurring. We’re coming. We’re serious about that.

“Hope is in the house. Hope is in the air. Hope is in the city. Hope is in the community.”

Sanders and his veteran staff have been busy scouring the nation for talent. The Hall of Fame NFL player known then as “Prime Time” has also posted on social media for recruits to reach out to him as well: “I ain’t hard to find.”

The Buffaloes signed players from 16 states and two from England. Not only that, they brought in a pair of five-star recruits in high school cornerback Cormani McClain and transfer cornerback/receiver Travis Hunter, who followed Sanders from Jackson State.

In all, there are around 35 newcomers on the spring roster. Maybe that’s why Sanders didn’t really want to talk about each of them by name.

“We’ve got names on the back of their shirts right now,” cracked Sanders, who starts spring practice March 19 with the intrasquad game scheduled for April 22. “I’m not familiar with every kid. I’m not being disrespectful. I’m just being honest.”

Only natural, given that he’s completely overhauled the roster from a team that went 1-11 last season. The class has four players from Georgia and seven from Sanders’ home state of Florida. There are eight defensive backs, which will come in handy given the level of quarterback play in the Pac-12.

In addition, Sanders brought in eight wide receivers, including Adam Hopkins, a four-star from Georgia. There’s also running back Dylan Edwards, who switched after verbally committing to Notre Dame.

Of course, don’t forget that transfer quarterback named Shedeur Sanders, who just happens to be the son of “Coach Prime” and threw 70 TD passes in two seasons at Jackson State.

Deion Sanders said he’s only getting warmed up, too.

“This is just a comma, because there’s a lot of people that’s going to bungee jump into the portal after spring because they’re going to be disappointed in playing time, commitment or the level of participation they’re garnishing,” Sanders said. “We’re going to take full advantage of that. So we’re not done. This is just the comma for the spring. But I love where we are, and what we have.”

It hasn’t taken long for Sanders to settle into the city of Boulder, calling it a “hidden gem.” He can’t wait to move into a house and have “a dog run around the yard.” He even doesn’t mind the snow, which blanketed Folsom Field on Wednesday. Quite honestly, he’s not sure why any player would want to go anywhere else.

“We expect to go get that kid,” Sanders said. “Only thing that can keep that kid from coming and signing with us, is a bag – someone paying them, the collectives or whatever. That’s it. Just outkicking the coverage. That’s it.

“Because the coaching staff, the atmosphere, the city, the publicity, the structure, the discipline, the academics, the graduation rate, the food in the cafeteria – I can keep going, because this thing is getting good. Just everything. It’s hard to say no. It really is.”

Listening in was athletic director Rick George, who appreciated the tone of what he heard. Sanders has quickly built the framework for a speedy turnaround.

“He’s brought a lot of energy and passion to this program again,” George said. “It’s what we desperately needed.”