Rancho Cucamonga’s C.J. Stroud treks unconventional path to Elite 11 Finals

Rancho Cucamonga quarterback C.J. Stroud goes deep with a pass during the Oakland regional to qualify for the Elite 11 in May.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

C.J. Stroud watches videos of past Elite 11 quarterback camps like reruns of his favorite sitcom. A quarterback himself at Rancho Cucamonga High, the soon-to-be senior has spent hours pulling up YouTube clips of the competition, which has featured some of the nation’s top high school recruits at the position over the last two decades.

He’s long visualized what it would feel like to get there himself.

“The Elite 11 is special,” Stroud said. “Especially for quarterbacks. Especially for me.”

In the modern, round-the-clock world of college football recruiting, the Elite 11 Finals is the pinnacle for prep quarterbacking.

This year’s event, which kicks off at the Dallas Cowboys’ Ford Center practice facility in Frisco, Texas, on Friday, will feature 20 quarterbacks nationally who qualified through regional camps earlier this spring.


Stroud will be among them, one of three Southern California passers headed east this weekend.

Mater Dei’s Bryce Young, a USC commit, and Corona Del Mar’s Ethan Garbers, a Washington pledge, are the other Southland natives who will soon join an Elite 11 alumni list that reads like a blockbuster cast: Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow and Jameis Winston have all passed through the competition since it was founded in 1999.

“I’ve been watching that since I can remember playing quarterback,” Stroud said. “Growing up watching those dudes, wanting to be there so bad and want to be in their shoes, finally to be able to do it is just a blessing.”

Stroud, who also starred as the point guard on Rancho Cucamonga’s basketball team, started football at age 5. When his first coach asked what position Stroud would play, his father didn’t hesitate to say “quarterback.”

“I just went out there and played quarterback ever since,” Stroud said.

The 6-foot-2 1/2 Stroud passed for 2,343 yards and 19 touchdowns during his first season as Rancho Cucamonga’s starter last fall. Behind the scenes, he flourished as a leader, helping the Cougars rally from an 0-4 start to reach the Southern Section Division I quarterfinals.

“He’s a vocal guy,” Cougars coach Mark Verti said. “He’s out there in practice hollering, gets fired up. Very competitive.”

Even though Stroud has targeted the Elite 11 for as long as he can remember, he has followed a nontraditional path to get there.

He doesn’t work with a passing instructor. Instead of transferring when he was the varsity backup during his freshman and sophomore seasons, he waited his turn to be the starter.

This spring, his basketball team’s run through the state playoffs impacted his preparation for the Elite 11 regional in Los Angeles, forcing him to try again weeks later in Oakland, where he eventually earned a spot in the finals.

It has taken time for college recruiters to target him too. His first offers didn’t arrive until this winter, and he heads to Texas as one of just two uncommitted prospects to be competing.

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“I feel like I have a lot to prove, said Stroud, who is the No. 534 overall national recruit in the Class of 2020, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, making him the third-lowest ranked participant on the Elite 11 roster this week. “I have a chip on my shoulder. I know the guys who they say are in front of me and the guys who say that they’re better than me, so I’ll have that in the back of my mind.”

At the end of the weekend, an “elite 11” from the 20 total competitors is announced. For Stroud, it’s the chance to showcase potential that has drawn his interest all these years.

“The history of the Elite 11, you definitely have to look at it not as a camp, but as a competition,” Stroud said. “As a way to better yourself not just as a football player, but as a person.”

Twitter: @Jack_A_Harris