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Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud: From ‘Little Man’ to Heisman Trophy favorite

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud will lead the No. 2 Buckeyes against No. 3 Michigan on Saturday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Even from a football field away, the little boy’s arm caught the eye of youth football coach Willie Munford, so he walked over for a closer look. He had never seen a child that young, surely no more than 8, fling a football with such abandon.

But after Munford started coaching C.J. Stroud, other beyond-his-years qualities jumped out to the point that he started calling him “Little Man.”

At 10, Stroud led his team, the Alta Loma Warriors in Alta Loma, Calif., in prayer before kickoff. Whenever games started getting a little crazy, Munford recalled, he would tell his teammates in the huddle, “Everybody calm down.”

“C.J. was always mature,” Munford said in a telephone interview. “Even when he was just a kid and did kid stuff, he knew what he wanted. He wanted to be the best quarterback there was.”

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Fast-forward a decade, and Stroud, 21, is a 6-foot-3, 218-pound Heisman Trophy favorite who will play the leading role in college football’s biggest game of the season Saturday when his Ohio State Buckeyes, No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, host No. 3 Michigan.

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

Saturday’s victor will clinch a spot in the Big Ten championship game and, almost certainly, the CFP.

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

“We’ve been thinking about that 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 victory over Maryland last week.

Stroud wasn’t his dazzling self against the Terrapins, managing just one touchdown on 18-for-30 passing, yet he managed his composure and the game’s critical moments.

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The Buckeyes’ offense can expect a tougher slog against Michigan’s top-ranked defense, which promises to make the 118th edition of the storied rivalry a telling gauge of Stroud’s progression as NFL scouts evaluate the second-year starter’s merits as a potential No. 1 draft pick.

“His leadership and his consistency have got 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 are going to be moments in that game where he’s going to play really well; there may be moments in that game where Michigan’s defense comes up with a turnover or whatever it might be. But there’s going to be an ebb and flow to the game. How he maintains his poise, how he maintains his leadership and pushing this team to try to find a way to win — this is the culmination of all that growth.”

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Both teams head into Saturday’s game with questions.

Michigan’s Heisman-contending running back, Blake Corum, injured his left knee in the Wolverines’ 19-17 victory over Illinois, which was sealed by a 35-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining.

Ohio State’s explosive passing game hasn’t dazzled of late. Stroud was held to just one touchdown against Maryland. It was the third game in the past four in which he managed just one or zero strikes.

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

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

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

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Stroud had been reared in the church but drifted from his faith after his father, his staunchest ally and adviser, was incarcerated for charges that included carjacking, 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 recounted at the outset of this season on the Pivot Podcast, hosted by former NFL standouts Ryan Clark, Channing Crowder and Fred Taylor.

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

But when he stepped into Babb’s church his second weekend in Columbus, Stroud said, he fell on his knees and wept, overcome with emotion and the conviction he drew from being in a holy place. He is no longer estranged from his father, who introduced him to football and reads every word written about his youngest child.

“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’m his son. . . . There’s no ill will to my dad. I love you, Dad. But I love my mama, too. Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”

The faith Stroud and Babb share is just part of what made that touchdown throw so meaningful. The other part is their shared drive to persevere through adversity in all its forms.

In Babb’s case, it has been successive knee injuries that sidelined him for three of his five playing seasons and, until Nov. 12, held the former coveted recruit without a college catch.

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

Babb stuck out his arms, grabbed it for the score and fell to his knees in prayer before disappearing in a sea of teammates’ hugs.

“I don’t care if I threw eight picks in that game,” Stroud said after the 56-14 victory, explaining his determination to get the ball to Babb. Expanding on the bond among all Buckeyes’ this season, he added, “I’m willing to fight for my brother if it means I got to play with one hand, one foot. . . . Everybody on this team is hungry and has each other’s back.”

When Munford watches Stroud on TV, he sees that same seriousness of purpose that set him apart as a youngster.

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Little Man never acted out; he never sulked or stormed off in frustration.

“I don’t think C.J. wanted to disappoint people,” Munford said. “He was grounded. I don’t even think there was anybody who disliked him. He never complained; his mom never complained. It was, ‘Okay, coach!’”

If Stroud gave his youth coach reason to worry, it was because he was too hard on himself after a bad game or a bad throw.

“I’d tell him: ‘C.J., Thanksgiving and Christmas are still going to come! You’re 12!’ ” Munford said.

‘It’s his team’

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

It was Stroud’s strong showing at the 2019 Elite 11 camp that got him noticed by recruiters. His mother, Kimberly, wept when his first scholarship offer arrived, from Mel Tucker, then Colorado’s coach, his junior year. Overtures continued to pour in.

Stroud invited Munford to the Ohio State signing party, where the youth coach reminded him what he told him before every Warriors game, “No matter what happens, hold your head up.”

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Stroud has done just that, forging new resolve from last season’s loss at Michigan and shouldering the alpha role heading into this season.

“In the offseason, he became the guy that really asserted himself as far as getting guys to show up on seven-on-seven [workouts], getting guys to push themselves in June, July and August when it’s hot out,” Herbstreit said. “He was that guy, and he wasn’t the year before. And so it’s his team.”

The Buckeyes couldn’t be in better hands, in Babb’s view.

“He’s a great quarterback,” Babb said after the Indiana victory. “I wouldn’t want anybody but him as our leader. He rallies our team together. And who he is a person — I’m just honored to be his brother and be alongside of him.”