A quarterback needs to build a rapport with each of his receivers, and that kind of work requires an offseason commitment that would be akin to the average person working during their time off for absolutely no additional pay.
“No chance,” you say.
Not because they need to, but because they want to. That’s the only way to get where they want to go, and it’s the only way to get there together.
The long-told story at Ohio State is that every pass that goes to a tight end is a pass that isn’t going to a wide receiver, and based on OSU’s history of receivers, why would anybody design an offense to limit the receivers’ touches?
Stover, however, has become one of quarterback CJ Stroud’s favorite targets this season. His eight catches are third-most on the team, as are his 137 yards receiving. In the absence of star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Stover has stepped up and been a reliable outlet for his quarterback.
In fact, the eight receptions for Stover are the most for a Buckeye in his first three games since Jeremy Ruckert had nine catches over the first three games of 2020. Ruckert, however, would only add four more receptions over the final five games of the season.
Stover’s numbers may fluctuate this season, especially as Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming become more integrated into the offense. But as the receivers rotate, Stover will remain more of a constant.
And it has been by design.
“Me and Cade have put in a lot of work this offseason, trying to make him more of a pass catcher,” Stroud said this week. “He was already kind of naturally good at running routes. He didn’t even know the reason why he was running his routes and where he had to be at a certain time. He’s really good in man. But in the offseason, we really worked on his zone routes, trying to get up in the right time and space at the time. So it kind of started then, and it has just been building ever since. I know I missed him on a couple other throws, but I know we’ll get back to working.”
Stover’s story can’t be told without mentioning his path to the offensive side of the ball. He was one of the nation’s top linebacker prospects in the 2019 class, but moved to defensive end late in the year. He spent the 2020 and 2021 seasons at tight end, but then played linebacker in the Rose Bowl.
It was after that January game that Stover believed his future was going to be back on defense. By spring ball, however, he was back on offense and fully invested in his future and the Buckeyes’ present.
Once spring practice was over, Stover went to work developing his receiver skills. He was catching passes, running routes, and diving into the hows and whys of playing a position that is as much about spacing and timing as it is blocking and catching.
Stover wasn’t alone. CJ Stroud was helping him and working with him. They put their “10,000 hours” in, and it has shown up in each game this season.
It also helps that Stroud is as accurate as any quarterback in the nation.
“He’s the best player with the football in his hands I’ve ever seen in my life. And [quarterback] Justin [Fields] came through here,” Stover said. “It’s an unbelievable touch too. Sometimes when you catch the ball from people, your hands will sting. Your hands don’t sting when he throws the ball. It is soft, but it’s got a little zip to it. It’s unbelievable.”
Putting as much work in together as they have, the two have grown extremely close.
“To be honest, we became really close over the past summer and stuff. And it’s just been great to get to know him,” Stover said. “He’s from another part of the world. For us to come together like that and play ball, I have all the respect in the world for that guy. I mean he’s a winner and he wants to win, so I’ll ride with him any day of the week.”
The growth of their relationship isn’t a small thing, either. Stover has shown Stroud that he is dedicated to his craft and this team, and also that he’s talented enough to be a part of this offense. Stroud, meanwhile, has shown Stover just how much he wants to win and how capable he is of making that happen.
Together, the two have formed a bond in the offseason that head coach Ryan Day says is instrumental in making the tight end such a productive piece of OSU’s offensive puzzle so far.
“I think it’s very important,” Day said. “I think Cade’s a big target. He’s got strong hands. I think over time, you have to build confidence on both sides of that, the receiving end and on the throwing end. I think that’s happened. And now it’s happening in real time in games. So that’s important as we move forward, because that’s something that can be a huge weapon for us as we head into conference play.”
Some people may look at the bond forged by a California kid like Stroud and an Ohio farm boy like Stover and be surprised by how close the two have gotten.
Stover, on the other hand, isn’t focused on the differences the two may have. Instead, it’s the similarities that continue to stand out above everything else.
“No, because we’ve got the same goal in mind,” Stover said. “He truly wants what’s best for the team. I truly want what’s best for our team. If CJ didn’t throw another touchdown and we win every game, he couldn’t care. If I don’t touch the ball another game and we win every game, I couldn’t care. We’ve got the same goals in mind, same purpose. Like I said earlier, man, I’ll ride with that guy, day and night. Any day of the week.”