AFC South reporter
Even as a freshman in high school, CJ Stroud, then a backup quarterback on the varsity team, had a suggestion for his offensive coordinator.
The stakes were high for Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High School. The Warriors were facing Mission Viejo in a playoff game. From the sideline, Stroud kept noticing the movements of one of the opposing defenders.
He shared his observations with player Mark Verti at halftime.
“Coach, that corner is jumping out [route]” explained Stroud. “We should take it a little further.”
Verti trusted the 15-year-old’s vision. On the first ball of the second half, Verti imposed the play. The cornerback bit, leaving the receiver wide open on the double move.
“He likes the aspect of outplaying the opponent, like football allows you to outplay people,” Verti, who later became Stroud’s head coach, told FOX Sports. “He likes that part of football and how people game plan and how it’s not just the physical enjoyment, but being able to use your mind and game plan throughout the chess match part.”
Draft pundits poked holes in the No. 2 overall pick’s stellar resume from Ohio State in the spring, largely based on reports he tested poorly on the S2 Cognition Test , which measures how quickly and accurately athletes process information. But several people who coached and played with Stroud praised his football IQ in interviews with FOX Sports.
His words provide a glimpse of what the Texans could get out of Stroud, their potential franchise quarterback, something Houston hasn’t had since Deshaun Watson.
“I’m looking at this opportunity as if it’s unique, 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 look forward to becoming.”
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At Ohio State, star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba would often sit next to Stroud in team meetings and watch the QB spit out reams of information with ease. If a player didn’t know his job or responsibility on a particular play, Stroud could tell him his assignment “every time,” Smith-Njigba said.
“Yes [Stroud] he doesn’t know, then the coach didn’t communicate it well and didn’t tell us because it’s the only way [he wouldn’t know]” the Seattle Seahawks first-round rookie pick told FOX Sports. “You might think he’ll forget, but he never forgets, and that’s with everything. This is with plays. That’s with life. That’s when someone said something three years ago.”
At Rancho Cucamonga, where Stroud didn’t become a full-time starter until his freshman year, it was normal for him to adjust to playcalls.
If the Warriors had a three-by-three guard set and the defense had four guys to one side, he would recognize it before the scrimmage, telling the running back to pick up the extra defender. If there was a running play on the overloaded side, I would hear it on the other side. He didn’t just see openings, he knew which plays would best take advantage of them.
Between games, he focused on the iPad, studying the defense’s constant adjustments and suggesting plays to his coach. His plays worked most of the time.
“In the last year, his entire knowledge of the football, from the protections to the coverages to what plays we have that would fit the openings we see on the field, was unmatched by any QB I’ve ever seen. trained before.” Verti said. “His spatial awareness was off the charts.”
Stroud’s former coaches point to basketball, his first love, as helping his play as a quarterback. He played two years in high school, primarily as a small forward and pivot in Rancho Cucamonga’s small-ball lineup. He was a good shooter. He handled the rock. He loved to have the ball in his hands.
His basketball coach, Bill Burke, believes Stroud could have played Division I if he had stuck with hoops.
“One of our best players, he crossed it and [the player] fell,” Burke recalled. “He said, ‘That’s the only reason you put me on the team.’ I said, ‘No, you’re just a freak athlete.'”
As a junior, Stroud hit a game-winning 3-pointer in a CIF state playoff game against Camarillo, which featured future UCLA star and projected 2023 NBA draft pick Jaime Jaquez Jr.
“He thought it was KD [Kevin Durant] in high school,” laughed Tony Wilson, an offensive assistant for the Rancho Cucamonga football team.
Stroud High School football coaches said fast breaks and basketball cuts have helped him see passing windows as a quarterback. But there was a time when Stroud, known as an elite pocket passer, just wanted to run. His father, Coleridge, encouraged it. But Tojo Munford, Stroud’s youth coach, taught him to stay in the pocket and put him through drills. For years, he told Stroud to throw to where receivers were going, not where they were. It was the basis of the early releases for which it is praised.
Munford saw how easily Stroud could throw the ball, even at age 7, when the coach first met him.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have about six or seven kids that have been in the NFL, but you don’t know. [that] “When they’re 8 years old,” Munford told FOX Sports. “But I said, ‘I could make millions of dollars one day throwing this ball.’
Stroud has always been the type to lead by example. According to former coaches, he wouldn’t hesitate to yell at his teammates, even a star wide receiver, if they showed up late to practices or workouts. He held them to the same level as himself.
After losing in a basketball playoff game, he apologized to the coaches for the way he was playing.
In football, Stroud was injured in the first game of his junior season. The team went 0-4 without him. But he became a player-coach, encouraging teammates to watch film and stick together. Rancho Cucamonga rallied to win seven straight.
In passing drills at Rancho Cucamonga football practice, Stroud made sure to throw to all receivers, not just the starters.
“In games, it seemed like he would make sure certain people got touchdowns,” Verti said. “Like, ‘Oh, they don’t have one yet? We’re up by three or four touchdowns. Let’s give this guy the ball and score a touchdown.'”
When Stroud arrives in Houston, expectations are sky high. He says he doesn’t believe in pressure. He doesn’t think there are any limits to how good he can be. And he knows he can lead. He did it at one of the biggest powerhouses in college football.
“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 up there with LeBron,” Stroud joked at his introductory news conference. “You’re the leader in the entire state.”
After triumphing at King James’ home, Stroud exudes confidence.
“When there’s any doubt from somebody else, they’re going to sharpen their tools,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be even tougher in the lab, on the field, in the film room, in the weight room, in the playbook. Not just for his team, but for himself to make sure he’s doing his part for his team
“He knows if he does his part,” Wilson added, “that will shut down all the doubters on its own.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) before moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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