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C.J. Stroud is ready to be pushed, and to push others

CJ Stroud

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was a moment during Tuesday night's dinner with the Carolina Panthers when C.J. Stroud said he could tell they were being nice.

And the pleasantries over dinner are kind of expected at this first-date stage of the relationship, but the Ohio State quarterback said he was eventually looking for a little more.

"Definitely very personable, but it's different when they're trying to get you than when you get in that room, and then they start yelling at you," Stroud said with a laugh after his workout Wednesday when asked about the dinner with a large contingent of Panthers staffers, which included head coach Frank Reich and many more. "But I feel like they're really honest people."

Asked if he could imagine anyone in that group laying into him, really pushing him, and he had a quick answer.

"I think coach Frank, I think he can get after it," Stroud said. "He seemed real cool right now. But I feel like he's the head coach; you've got to set the tone, so I understand."

Of course, Stroud also knows that if the Panthers choose him with the first overall pick, there will be a number of voices other than Reich's in his ear. From an elder offensive mind like Jim Caldwell (who used to coach some guy named Peyton Manning), to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown with his Super Bowl ring from the Rams, to quarterbacks coach Josh McCown, the Panthers have stocked the room to coach this kind of prospect.

And that's clearly the kind of setting he's looking for as he tries to elevate his own game.

"I think in talking to them last night and something I agree upon, it's going to be a process; I'm not going to come in and just be who I think I want to be right away," Stroud said. "It's going to take time. It's going to take a lot of hard work.

"But with that coaching staff, I definitely, they can help me get to that point where I want to be definitely one of the best in the league, if not the best."

That's clearly what the Panthers are looking for in whichever quarterback they draft. When you trade two first-rounders, two seconds, and DJ Moore to get to the No. 1 overall choice, you're clearly expecting to find a player who can be elite someday.

And those who have spent time around Stroud beyond the last 24 hours think that's what he's on his way to becoming and what he's pushing to attain.

So at Wednesday's pro day workout, they mixed it up a little more, had him throwing on the move more often. It wasn't necessarily a normal drop-back workout. But being on the move and making plays is consistent with what he was doing in perhaps his best game in college, in the national semifinals against Georgia.

The Buckeyes lost that game, but Stroud was electrifying against one of the best defenses in recent years. But it was the buildup to that game that suggested to Ohio State offensive coordinator Brian Hartline that Stroud had what it took to play to that level and go onto the next one.

Partially, that's because it came after things hadn't gone well.

On Nov. 26, the Buckeyes lost to Michigan 45-23 at home and were in for a long wait before they'd get a chance to make up for it. Stroud wasn't his best that day, throwing a pair of interceptions as his team lost a halftime lead, getting outscored 28-3 in the second half by their rivals.

Brian Hartline

"I see him respond," Hartline replied when asked how Stroud bounces back from bad outcomes. "He's already really focused, but there is a level of refocusing and a level of accountability that he continues to put on himself. That is very noticeable. So he will try to refocus and do more, but he also carries a lot of weight.

"But if things don't go well, it's on him, you know. So the combination of those two is kind of what he leans on if things start getting hard."

After that game, the Buckeyes had a long break and a daunting task — with 35 days to stew on it before facing a dominant Georgia team.

Hartline said Stroud's immediate reaction was to lean into what came next and make sure he was as prepared as he could be.

"There's definitely a heightened sense of being thorough," Hartline said. "He was always thorough, but we also had more time than we did in our normal week. So, you know, he maximized that time; he didn't take it for granted. And, I think the accountability was raised from himself and from peer-to-peer. You know, I saw him barking a little more at players and holding them accountable, and even more accountable, which was good.

"So everything that he's capable of, he was continuing to grow into."

The performance in that Georgia game got the attention of the Bulldogs and every college scout. While Stroud was a prospect anyway, that game elevated him. You play the way he did against the best, you raise your level, and you raise the expectations.

Now, he's under serious consideration for the top pick in the draft, and he looked the part Wednesday.

He threw with authority during his workout (and throwing to a future first-rounder in Marvin Harrison Jr. helped. Harrison isn't eligible for this year's process but looked like he belonged in the top five of some future draft himself). Stroud connected on a number of deep balls that had his teammates cheering, but the room largely got quiet when he began to throw. The normal chatter died down, and scouts made their comments in hushed tones. But you could still hear the consensus.

"He throws such a catchable ball," one said.

"Yeah, he makes it so easy for his receivers," another evaluator replied.

For Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer, it was a solid display.

"I thought he threw the ball really well," Fitterer said. "He's very comfortable. The ball jumped off his hand. Moved around, moved the pocket, and just showed a lot of touch, a lot of strength in the arm.

"We saw everything we needed to see."

Of course, the throwing was just part of what they want to see.

The Panthers are investing in more than a thrower of footballs. They're looking for a leader and someone who can be one sooner rather than later. So they're also mining for personality traits on this trip.

And while his one-on-one time was with the Panthers this week, he knows that he's not in control of this process either.

"For me, it's not my decision. So wants and needs, or being the first pick, is not on my mind," Stroud said. "I want to go to the right fit. Whoever likes me the most, whichever offense I fit the most, it's on them to pick. It's not my job to stress on that, so I'm going to keep being myself.

"It's not just about me. It's about them and their franchise. If I join it, OK, but if not, it is what it is. I'll be doing myself a discredit if I focus on what everybody else is doing. I've got to focus on me right now, getting better, not only on the field but in these classrooms and board work and, of course, getting my body right in the weight room and everything."

That's consistent with what Hartline said Stroud was about on a regular basis. Hartline talked to the Panthers' brass during their stay — it helps that he's a former Browns teammate of McCown, so they were going to talk anyway — and said there were common themes he relayed to his old friend.

"Probably just the consistency of who he is as a person and consistency as a player," Hartline said. "Now, seeing him in person, we got to see that every day. But now he's able to solidify and just continue to build on top of the consistency in which he operates.

"I think your habits kind of take you home and keep you healthy. Your habits keep you consistent and are what you fall back on when things get hard. So you know how consistent he is as a person with his habits and how he operates day-to-day and how he takes care of himself as a person and as a football player, which is going to bode well for him in the NFL. And I think he's built for that."

Of course, there's more to Stroud than the football.

Hartline laughed and said "he's got some wit, let's put it that way. I would say he definitely has some wit and some personality."

He also, apparently, has a competitive streak.

Panthers wide receiver C.J. Saunders was on staff for the Buckeyes when Stroud arrived on campus, his own career derailed by an injury that had him working on the football staff instead of playing. But he was around the quarterbacks and receivers constantly, so he got to know this younger CJ pretty well, including on the basketball court.

"He's a good player; he gets after it," Saunders said of Stroud's basketball skills. "For his size, to be a taller dude, he has a point guard's game, which makes sense when you see him play football. But he's the kind of competitor that you see that come out."

Saunders laughed and recalled a minor flap from Stroud's younger days, when he caused a stir by saying the Buckeyes football team could have been competitive on the court with their basketball team.

"I honestly think that if we played football versus our basketball team, I think it would be close," Stroud said last July at Big Ten (football) media days. "I think we would win."

"That got a little traction around Columbus," Saunders said with a laugh.

But it was also a signal that Stroud was the kind of player to go hard, whether it was in a pickup game or in practices.

"He was just super-mature for his age," Saunders said. "We quickly found out what he was about, and he gained respect in the locker room because of the way he worked. It was just going hard every day. He would never tap out of a rep, would always want more work. You could tell that dude was locked in."

CJ Stroud

And those competitive juices kept showing up throughout his career.

Nick Murphy, the Buckeyes' director of recruiting strategy, has also witnessed those practice habits and some of the legendary pickup games on the court behind the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, steps away from where Stroud was throwing Wednesday.

"Even in 7-on-7, when it's receivers on cornerbacks, he's going in for the kill. He's trying to win. He wants to dominate the person across from him," Murphy said. "Again, we have a little basketball court in the back of the facility right here, and it was just for our guys. And when they get in there, it's like Game 7 of the NBA Finals. And it's like, guys, you can't go this hard.

"But he wants to win. That's been his thing. Everything about him is just going to win, or he wants to win. He wants to be the best."

Murphy said that even Stroud has immersed himself into preparing for the NFL Draft, he's still a regular in the building. Yesterday, before he went to dinner with the Panthers, he was out watching the Buckeyes' softball team (in a 4-3 win over Kent State), showing a softer side, one that's not always on.

"He's ultra-competitive, but he's also ultra-personable," Murphy said.

Of course, Murphy has a bit of a vested interest in this thing in a couple of directions.

Sure, he works for the Buckeyes football team; he wants the best for all of them.

But he also grew up a Panthers fan, because Murphy grew up in the city he hopes Stroud plays in.

Murphy's a local. He played at Mallard Creek High with Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle DJ Humphries and former UNC quarterback Marquise Williams. He also worked on the football staff at Charlotte for two years before coming to Columbus.

"I'm extremely proud of the Charlotte roots and being able to represent the city," Murphy said. "And I'm pulling for the Panthers to pick him. That would be great for everybody. I'm telling you.

"He just has a personality that galvanizes young people. And that's really what's exciting about him. He's just a tremendous leader, man. I think at an early stage, he's gotten better at it through the years. From last spring when I got here, to now, he's still going, still getting better. That's what's really exciting about it.

"And that's why I'm hoping he ends up back there in Charlotte with you guys."

View photos from Wednesday's Ohio State pro day workout as Panthers coaches and staff watched quarterback prospect C.J. Stroud.

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