C.J. Stroud runs Texans’ first-team offense in ‘very eye-opening’ performance, displays intellectual curiosity

Texans rookie quarterback continues to impress coaching staff. ‘Coming off the long weekend, it was very eye-opening how on it he was,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “He did an awesome job in our situational period. He’s definitely progressing in the right direction. The sky is the limit for him

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud throws a pass during a rookie football minicamp practice Friday, May 12, 2023, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (David J. Phillip, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

HOUSTON – Rifling spirals, C.J. Stroud looked smooth in his delivery and comfortable standing inside the pocket.

Although Stroud still has experienced the usual rookie moments during his initiation into the NFL, the Texans’ potential starting quarterback is building his chemistry with his teammates and boosting the confidence of his coaches as he learns on the fly.

A major reason why Stroud is advancing rapidly as he tries to prove he can handle being the Texans’ QB1 heading into the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens: his intellectual curiosity.

Not only has Stroud approached defensive coordinator Matt Burke to gain knowledge about coverage schemes that initially threw him off his game, he has done so with the Texans’ defensive backs, including standout safety Jalen Pitre.

Texans quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson has known Stroud since he was competing in Elite 11 at the age of 17, watching his progression from a California high school standout, to winning the Ohio State quarterback job over blue-chip recruits, including Texas Longhorns starter Quinn Ewers, becoming a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and now as a precocious rookie and second overall pick of the draft.

“I met C.J. at a young age and to go through the draft process and see him now as an adult, a mature kid who’s been through a lot, on and off the field, and see the man he’s become, it’s great to have that reference point,” Johnson said. “I’m excited for his future. We just want him to be comfortable and confident in what we’re asking him to do. We just want him to be the best version of himself.”

Stroud has looked extremely natural dropping back from under center, something he wasn’t required to do often in college, executing crisp play-action fakes before finding his targets downfield.

Stroud has been earning the confidence of the coaching staff.

That includes Burke, who came away encouraged after a recent practice by how much Stroud humbly wanted to gain more knowledge from him about how the defense was attacking him.

During the practice session, Stroud was somewhat befuddled in a two-minute drill toward the end of practice and threw a pass into coverage as he encountered an unfamiliar defensive scheme.

“It was the first day we put the coverage in, and he threw in, and kind of probably was a throw he probably wanted back,” Burke said. “The first thing he did when I was walking off the field was he grabbed me, said literally, ‘Coach Burke.’ And he spent about 10 minutes walking in off the field asking me about the coverage and just sort of what he saw and how we kind of set it up and talked through that.

“So I think, just again, his deliberateness and intent to try to get better, and like he’s literally grabbing everybody he can on the field. He’s been very sort of intentional about learning and just learning defense, too, like, ‘What did you call there? What was that coverage or what did you do here?’ I respect that from him.”

Respect is a huge factor for any NFL player, especially for a rookie who could be tasked with leading the entire offense and, by extension, the whole team.

“This team has been very accepting of me, very honest, and very transparent,” Stroud said. “What I love about it, man, nothing has been given to me. I have to earn everything, which I love. It’s been like that my whole career, so it’s nothing new.

“For me, I’m trying to get better. t’s not about being with the ones, being with the twos, just getting better. That’s what spring is for. Getting the timing down, learning my receivers. That’s what I’ve been on. It’s not about ones and twos right now, just getting better as a whole and getting ready for training camp.”

Stroud hasn’t thrown an interception during any of the Texans’ practices open to reporters. At some point, he’ll make some mistakes. It’s how he handles those kind of miscues that will be defining moments in whether the Texans entrust him as a first-year starter.

By all early accounts, Stroud is well on his way toward earning that kind of status ahead of incumbent starter Davis Mills.

Whether it’s how he runs the huddle or throws the football, the initial returns on Stroud are encouraging.

“C.J., he’s progressing well,” Texans coach DeMeco Ryans said. “Each day he continues to get better and more comfortable with the verbiage of the offense. His command of the huddle I thought this week has been really good.

“Coming off the long weekend, it was very eye-opening how on it he was. He did an awesome job in our situational period he’s definitely progressing in the right direction. The sky is the limit for him.

Stroud, drafted by the Texan one selection after Alabama quarterback Bryce Young went to the Carolina Panthers first overall, has made a great first impression on the Texans.

They like what they’re seeing from him so far and are eager to chart his growth.

In his interaction with Pitre, he was seeking advice, wanting to learn about what he can do better.

“A real professional,” Pitre said. “Every day he’s looking for something to get better at. Asking different things we’re seeing and different ways he can get better. It’s a real professional in C.J., and you could see why he was drafted so high because he really cares about the game of football.”

For Stroud, a 21-year-old native of Rancho Cucamonga, California, it’s about proving himself all over again at a higher level.

“Of course, it’s a dream come true, and of course I’ve been working for it my whole life, but I feel like I’m built for this,” Stroud said. “I’m made not just to play football, but to use football to help inspire people and lead people to God. That’s what I plan to do.

“It’s just a stepping stone. I have a lot more goals and a lot more plans to accomplish what I want to accomplish on and off the field, and I’m excited to do that with this great organization.”

Because the Texans are still in install mode with first-time offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik’s version of the Kyle Shanahan-Gary Kubiak offensive system, it’s difficult to make lasting impressions from one practice.

Stroud has been extremely accurate, just as he was for the Buckeyes as he completed 69.3 percent of his throws in two seasons as the starter.

“I would say a good leader already coming in, vocal, speaking up in meetings, being able to sit with him at times in the quarterback meetings and hearing him ask some great questions, trying to pick apart the offense and grasp it pretty early,” veteran wide receiver Robert Woods said. “Out on the field, making some strong throws, good reads, good decisions. That’s really a good thing to start with a rookie quarterback coming in, being able to make the right decisions, know when to throw it, know when to pull it down. Good decisions on timing and accuracy with the football.”

Stroud passed for 8,123 yards, 85 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions for the Buckeyes, going 21-14 in two seasons as the starter.

Now, he could become the Texans’ most dynamic quarterback since they traded Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns.

Being so inquisitive is regarded as a positive sign by Johnson. It’s not difficult to interpret that it means he truly cares about being as good as he can possibly be. That type of commitment is more than half the battle.

“I think all of our guys ask a lot of questions,” Johnson said. “They want to know the why. They want to know deeper: ‘Why are we running these plays?’ And we can give them that information and it builds a comfort level and a confidence level We want these guys to ask questions.”

As Stroud works to learn all he can about the intricacies of Slowik’s playbook, he’s showing dedication and his ability to absorb a lot of information and nuances during a short amount of time during the past month.

Ultimately, it comes back to learning and teaching like a classroom on the football field.

“Yeah, it’s required that he reaches out to learn more for me, so that’s happened a lot,” Slowik said. “He wants to have command of what’s going on, as anyone who’s in that position should. They want to feel comfortable in what they’re doing, what direction they have to go, what answers to have to have on every play, and every play is a little different. I think every player you have before you’re really empowered to teach or coach them, I think you have to have a vision for what they’re going to do and who they are and what’s going to make them the best they can be.

“So you kind of start there. Then you branch off into, ‘We need to attack this, this is your strength. Let’s make sure we emphasize this. We struggled a little bit with this aspect, let’s try to work on this to get that improved so that the totality of what we do then fits into what the guys around us are doing, which then fits into the offense. So it’s kind of been the same for everybody in that regard, C.J. included.”

Aaron Wilson is a Texans and NFL reporter for KPRC 2 and click2houston.com.

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