HOUSTON – C.J. Stroud experienced the typical rookie growing pains Tuesday morning while operating the Texans’ first-team offense during a minicamp.
It was Stroud’s turn as the competition between the second overall pick of the draft and projected starter will be continued during training camp, according to coach DeMeco Ryans.
Although the first-round draft pick delivered some sharp throws, including a long, well-placed spiral to wide receiver Nico Collins for a sideline completion that could have been a touchdown, Stroud also whiffed completely on a bootleg throw. He displayed a tendency to put too much air under the football, leading his receivers too much on overthrows. Stroud had a potential touchdown pass to tight end Brevin Jordan that ricocheted off his hands, and he connected with rookie running back Xazavian Valladay for one score.
Meanwhile, Mills looked sharp during a two-minute drill that led up to a Ka’imi Fairbairn field goal and was also smooth in red-zone work.
Overall, the Texans are encouraged by Stroud’s progression and not alarmed by any early mistakes he’s committed. If anything, they feel like he’s advanced for a young quarterback.
“The best thing I’ve seen about C.J. with his improvement and his growth is that he doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Ryans said. “He learns from his mistakes. He puts those behind him and he finds a way to continue to improve and get better. That’s the main thing we want out of all of our guys. That’s what being a pro is, and C.J. is definitely heading in the right direction.”
Both Mills and Stroud have had their moments this spring.
And Ryans and the coaching staff aren’t at a point where they feel a need to name a starter.
“Both of our guys have been rotating each week,” Ryans said. “You came to practice. You’ve seen we’ve rotated those guys each week. Just happened to be the week C.J. was with the ones.”
It’s not inconceivable that the Texans will have Stroud prove he can check several boxes before they make a determination on whether he will start the season-opener on the road against the Baltimore Ravens.
Stroud will need to earn the starting job. To achieve QB1 status, he’ll need a strong training camp and pass the test of competing and excelling against defenses in preseason games.
“We’ll see where their process goes in training camp,” Ryans said. “As the competition continues to grow, we’ll see who separates themselves. That decision will take care of itself.”
A two-time Heisman Trophy finalist at Ohio State, Stroud has the potential to become the Texans’ most dynamic passer since Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson was on the roster.
Stroud has impressed older teammates, including veteran quarterback Case Keenum.
“C.J., coming in here, I would have thought he’s been here a year, been in the league four or five-year vet,” said Keenum, who’s an experienced mentor for Stroud and Mills. “Being able to call plays for a guy, who has no-huddled in college and has come in and run a pro-style offense that’s wordy, there’s a lot more than that to operate and be extremely accurate and a lot of zip on the ball and great feet. Under-center stuff, he’s not afraid to try new things and has jumped right in.”
Although Stroud has had some miscues 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.
“For me with the quarterback, it’s all about confidence, right?” Ryans said. “We want him to rip it. If you see it, go through your progression. If you see it, make it happen. We understand every ball is not going to be perfect, you’re not going to protect it all the time. I never want our quarterback playing afraid to make a mistake. I want everybody playing to their maximum potential and attacking everything that we do.”
A major reason why Stroud is advancing rapidly as he tries to prove he can handle being the Texans’ starter: 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 Big Ten Conference standout and now as a precocious rookie and top draft pick.
“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 a recent 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.
Whether it’s how he runs the huddle or throws the football, the initial returns on Stroud are encouraging.
How does Stroud stack up against a veteran like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott?
Former Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown joined the Texans this offseason and he’s impressed.
“They’re both great quarterbacks,” Brown said. “I mean, great arm talent. I think it’s a little bit early to compare a rookie to somebody like Dak Prescott. That’s a great class to be in. I think he has all the potential to live up to that, maybe even surpass it. So, you know, I’m rooting for C.J. and I’m willing to have his back on anything.”
“I know C.J. has great arm talent. The little bit of time I’ve been here working with him, he’s picked up the offense fast, taken ownership of his reps. I think that can only lead to positive things.”
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.
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.”
NOTES: Pro Bowl alternate running back Dameon Pierce didn’t practice due to a stomach illness. ... Veteran safety Jimmie Ward didn’t practice with Eric Murray filling in for him with the first-team defense. “Jimmie is fine,” Ryans said. ... Second-year left offensive guard Kenyon Green, a rookie starter last season after being drafted in the first round out of Texas A&M, remains sidelined after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery this offseason. Michael Deiter filled in for him at left guard next to center Scott Quessenberry with rookie second-round pick Juice Scruggs working with the second-team offense at center. ...Wide receiver John Metchie III, who missed his entire rookie season after being diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia, is out until training camp with a strained hamstring. ... Starting cornerback Steven Nelson, who hired agent David Mulugheta as he seeks an upgraded contract as the 40th-ranked corner in the NFL with a $4.5 million annual average, is participating in the minicamp after being absent for the voluntary portion of the offseason. ... Defensive end Will Anderson Jr., a first-round draft pick from Alabama, has made a big impression on Ryans, a fellow former Crimson Tide standout. “Will has been great throughout camp,” Ryans said. “One thing about Will, he’s been the same guy who we thought we were getting when we drafted him, right? He’s been on it every single day. When it comes to just the effort, the tenacity that he plays with, the energy, everything about him, he’s been that and more. Will has gotten better each and every day. He takes coaching really well. Doc has done a really good job of working with him, honing in on just those small fine details of his game. Will has done a great job of absorbing coaching and being able to take it to the field and apply it. It’s been cool to watch.” ... Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who signed a $25 million per year contract this offseason that made him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL for the second time in his career, is participating in the minicamp along with new defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. .. Former Las Vegas Raiders Pro Bowl linebacker Denzel Perryman is nearly full-speed after recovering from labrum shoulder surgery. .... The Texans had referees at practice to go over rules and make calls. “It’s important for us to have the NFL refs out,” Ryans said. “We’re thankful for them coming out to assist us when it comes to our two-minute drills and how we’re trying to operate. We want to make sure we’re as clean as possible. If there are any tips we can learn from the refs, they may have suggestions or ideas that can help us improve our efficiency as an offense, as a defense, whether it comes to penalties. They give us those tips and things that they are looking for, so we can see the game and understand what they’re looking for. We see it through the refs’ lenses. We know how to play smarter football whether it comes to offense or defense.”
Aaron Wilson is a Texans and NFL reporter for KPRC 2 and click2houston.com