CJ Stroud isn’t your conventional pro-style quarterback. He floats in the pocket like he’s riding a gentle wave.
The Rancho Cucamonga High four-star prospect hasn’t been groomed for the position by a slew of personal instructors and quarterback gurus. His every throw hasn’t been rehearsed during seven-on-seven passing tournaments and broken down in video sessions. His ability to move around and escape defenders often features moves he learned playing basketball. His accuracy when throwing on the run comes from playing backyard football between cars lining the streets.
But when he takes the field Friday night at Sierra Canyon, no one will be able to take their eyes off of Stroud. He’s one of the most coveted recruits in the nation as the top uncommitted quarterback, a position where the top players commit much earlier than their non-quarterback peers, often before or during their junior year. Seven of the top 10 quarterbacks in the 2021 class, per the 247 Composite rankings, and 14 of the top 23 have already made college commitments for next year.
That wasn’t an option for Stroud last year.
He didn’t start for the Cougars until his junior year and he played basketball, so he wasn’t active on the seven-on-seven circuit. He didn’t have the scholarship opportunities that many of the other quarterbacks he has since surpassed in the 2020 recruiting rankings had previously.
“You can’t really control opportunities, but when you get your opportunity you have to prove what you can do and ball out. I feel like that’s what I did,” Stroud said. “I have a big saying in my life: ‘Control the controllables.’ I can’t really control what a school thinks about me. I can only prove what I can do on the field. That’s something I can control. I knew if I took care of business on the field, everything else would take care of itself.”
That’s what he’s done this calendar year, beginning with the Opening Oakland Regional, when he earned one of the coveted spots to the Elite 11 Finals quarterback camp. Stroud was one of the lowest-ranked quarterbacks to be invited to the event held in conjunction with the Opening Finals in Frisco, Texas. His ranking was quickly boosted by each of the recruiting sites. He stole the show. He was one of the most impressive passers throughout the week. He and Santa Ana Mater Dei’s Bryce Young were on the same seven-on-seven team at the event, but it was Stroud that led the team to a title in the championship game, earning him Elite 11 MVP honors.
His recruitment had already begun to take off this spring after schools evaluated his junior season game film, when he passed for 2,343 yards and 19 touchdowns, and saw him in action during spring practices. It shot to a new level during the Elite 11 Finals.
College coaches cannot attend the event, but word of mouth travels fast when a lesser-known player shines among the nation’s top players. Ohio State and Oregon coaches reached out while he was still in Texas and later offered. He’s recently received scholarship offers from UCLA and Michigan. Sources say USC has extended a scholarship as well, though it has not been publicly stated by Stroud.
“It’s kind of been a 360-turn,” Stroud said of his recruitment after a ceremony at Rancho Cucamonga High where he was presented his All-American Bowl jersey and recognized as a 2020 All-American. “Everything has kind of transitioned in my life for the better. I can do nothing but just thank God that my life has changed the last couple months. Everybody that was here today has been knowing my whole life about what I’ve been doing, but now everybody nationally knows. I just feel like if I keep doing what I’m doing, just upgraded a level, then I’ll just keep elevating myself.”
Stroud got a bump in the ratings from his spring performances, but it wasn’t until after the Elite 11 Finals that he moved from outside the top 500 and earned four-star status in the composite rankings. He’s now ranked No. 133 overall and the No. 3 pro-style quarterback.
“CJ earned this spot,” Cougars coach Mark Verde said at the All-American presentation. “He worked and busted his butt off. He watches film. He knows the offense. He knows the defenses. A few times after a touchdown was called. ‘Good call, Coach. Good call.’ I was like, ‘I didn’t call it. This guy called it.’ “
“It’s been great to see,” teammate Quentin Moten said. “I remember when no one had faith in him and last year, he proved everybody wrong. This offseason, when he won that MVP, everybody that doubted him is now riding the wave.”