HOUSTON – Inside the film room, on the sideline, in the huddle and on the football field, C.J. Stroud has been unfazed by the intense stress of the NFL.
Whether it’s a good moment like his three touchdown passes in the red zone to rookie wide receiver Tank Dell in joint practices this week against the Miami Dolphins or a rough sequence when he held the football longer than he should have and stared down Dell against the New England Patriots for an interception in his NFL debut a week ago, the Texans’ rookie quarterback hasn’t rode the wave of emotions that accompany the learning experiences of training camp and the preseason.
As Stroud prepares for his second NFL start Saturday night against the Miami Dolphins at NRG Stadium, and an expected increased workload after playing just two series against the Patriots, Texans quarterbacks coach Jerrod Johnson likes what he’s seeing from the second overall pick from Ohio State. Especially the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist’s demeanor and reaction to mistakes.
“Absolutely, he’s a super mature kid,” Johnson told KPRC 2. “He has a great foundation. He played a lot of big-time football in college, and it doesn’t seem too big for him. That was a a cool thing to see how he handle the adversity. It wasn’t exactly easy out there. The Patriots are a really good team with a really good scheme. I think he learned from it and you move on.”
That’s what the Texans and Stroud anticipate as he matches wits with the Dolphins’ defense designed by veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Although coach DeMeco Ryans didn’t indicate how long Stroud and the other starters will play after going for two series at Gillette Stadium, they’re expected to play at least a quarter and perhaps longer.
Before being replaced by Davis Mills, Stroud played two sputtering series against the Patriots as the offense failed to gain any traction. He had a substandard 17.7 passer rating. And he rushed twice for six yards, showing a willingness and capability to scramble when things broke down. Stroud was also sacked once, dropped to the ground by defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale. He played 11 plays, and the offense gained 13 yards in his two series.
Stroud completed 2 of 4 passes for 13 yards against the Patriots.
The knowledge he gained, though, could be invaluable going forward.
“I think overall it was a good night for him,” Johnson said. “The biggest thing is it’s a first, it’s the first time getting off the bus, it’s the first time going against another defense. The Patriots ran a different defensive structure and it presented some challenges, but I think he handled the challenges well.
“I think there are a couple of plays he would like to have back, but he made some plays as well. You wish you could get him a couple more reps. The biggest thing is he knows what it feels like. He can stash that rep away and hopefully build on it.”
It was a rough initiation into the NFL for Stroud as he endured a learning experience while operating behind a makeshift offensive line missing starters Laremy Tunsil, Shaq Mason and Tytus Howard and Pro Bowl alternate running back Dameon Pierce also rested for precautionary reasons. Pierce is slated to play against the Dolphins and other healthy starters.
What happened on the interception?
“There’s a bunch of things that happened on that play, it wasn’t just him,” Johnson said. “A whole lot was going on. At the end of the day, he knows and we know that as quarterbacks we have to take care of the football. Sometimes, the best lessons are doing it out there as a rookie and a player. In this league, you have to figure out that threshold.
“How long can I hold onto it to let the play develop? How soon do I have to get it out of my hands? Even though the play may be developing, the pocket may not allow it. All of these are things he has to figure out. At the end of the day, it’s a learning experience and there will good plays and bad plays.”
Stroud was a two-year starter for Ohio State, where he threw for 8,123 yards with 85 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions as the Buckeyes went 21-4. His 85 touchdowns over two seasons broke a Big Ten record held previously by Drew Brees.
“I think he’s growing and growing as a quarterback,” Texans veteran wide receiver Robert Woods said. “He’s grown and learned so much since we first got here. Even from the first preseason game to these two practices, I think we’re constantly learning and growing as a team.
“Seeing him grow as a quarterback, seeing different defenses, different looks, commanding the offense, I think that’s really good for our offense and for our quarterback to be able to compete, see different things. He’s going into this game as the starter, getting another game opportunity. He’s feeling it out and getting used to and be ready to go for the real action.”
The Texans are doing everything they can to get Stroud ready for the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens. They haven’t officially named him QB1 yet, but he is listed first on the unofficial depth chart.
While having the first-string offensive personnel will obviously provide a boost for Stroud, the California native will also need to absorb the lessons gained from this uneven debut. The Texans, including coach DeMeco Ryans and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, have recognized how Stroud doesn’t repeat mistakes.
The hope from the Texans organization is that Stroud will rebound strongly from this performance and reverse the fortunes of the offense. They like his poise and calmness.
“He was awesome,” Slowik said. “His game mentality is phenomenal. He’s a competitor. He knew the plan we had for him going into it and he didn’t want to come out. He was begging for another series, which I understand. That’s what you want. You want someone really hungry that wants to play.
“He knew exactly what happened when he came off the field. He saw it, which is pretty good for a rookie quarterback, and he knew exactly what he had to do to fix it. He was ready to go. I couldn’t ask for anything other than that.”
During the offseason, Stroud organized throwing sessions for the receivers in Los Angeles. To take that initiative left a lasting impression on Woods.
“Just a young quarterback, a rookie quarterback taking initiative of getting the receivers together, he’s like, ‘I’m going to be in L.A. training with my coach, get the guys to come out and have a training session. Everybody who’s available, come out here and throw,’” Woods said. “I think that’s really good for a young quarterback to gather us guys and get together and make sure that timing is always important and intact. I think it’s one of those things where he didn’t really say, ‘I want to go to L.A. just to work on my game,’ he kind of wanted everyone to improve their game and work together.”
Stroud’s accuracy and overall command of the game have made an impression, including with opposing coaches.
“I think he is a very natural thrower that has a unique gift of ball placement,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. “He’s probably not bragging about ball placement right now because as an NFL quarterback, as a rookie, you’re in a foreign language.
“So even when you’re doing awesome, you’re stressed out. Your job is to deliver messages to players. And so he looks the part to me with the way he throws the ball. And you can tell that he has an aura of confidence. That’s exciting to see from a player.”
While operating the starting offense at training camp, Stroud has displayed poise, accuracy, arm strength, composure and a resiliency when he’s made mistakes including a rough three-interception stretch in two days earlier in camp. The California native has also shown a thirst for knowledge, quizzing defensive players and coaches about coverage schemes and philosophies.
Stroud immediately recognized what he did wrong against the Patriots on the interception by Jalen Mills.
“Just trust my eyes,” Stroud said. “I saw a certain look to where I knew on film that they could run that to where the safety, if his man blocks that he’ll come off and really be locked into my eyes. Just lost track of that, and just forced it and should have just checked it down.
“But it was a great play, by kind of just hiding out, he was kind of ducking low, so I didn’t really see him. I thought I threw a good pass, but, of course, it wasn’t. Hell of a play and just put that in my back pocket and learn from it.”
From winning the starting job at Ohio State as he beat out several blue-chip recruits to replace Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields to matching wits with the eventual national champion Georgia Bulldogs and their ultra-talented defense in a playoff game to how he has handled the competition he’s clearly winning over Mills, nothing has been too big for Stroud at any stage of his football career.
Signed to a four-year, $36.3 million contract that includes a $23.3 million signing bonus all paid upfront, Stroud got off to a fast start at training camp.
The Texans have taken a lot of steps to prepare Stroud for these games. They have downplayed expectations and not done anything to place undue pressure on the former Buckeyes star.
Stroud could still galvanize an offense that was overly dependent on Pierce a year ago. Mills was intercepted 15 times a year ago with three returned for touchdowns, 17 touchdowns, a 78.8 passer rating and a 3-10-1 record as a starter. He was replaced at one point by journeyman Kyle Allen. Mills has played well, for the most part, at camp. He hasn’t played to Stroud’s level, though.
“He’s a very competitive kid,” Slowik said of Stroud. “He didn’t want that to be the end, which I understand. But his demeanor was awesome. He was very calm. He was able to talk through the mistakes that happened. He was able to talk through other people’s mistakes that people may not know happened and he was ready to improve upon them if given the opportunity.”
The Texans have communicated that they want Stroud to earn the starting job and ascend to QB1 status. Nothing has been handed to him.
What Stroud hasn’t done is press. He wasn’t immediately named the starting quarterback the way that the Carolina Panthers did with top overall pick Bryce Young or the Indianapolis Colts recently did with Anthony Richardson. If that bothers Stroud, it’s not evident in his words or body language. If anything, he’s exactly on the same page with the Texans’ coaching staff. The goal: get him ready to start on the road in the first game of the regular season against the Ravens.
Pierce, the Texans’ Pro Bowl alternate running back, wants to do everything he can to make life easier for Stroud.
At the same time, he sees progress from the rookie.
“He’s working,” Pierce said. “That’s one thing I can say about C.J., he’s working every day to get in that playbook, getting those calls out. It’s really not the plays, it’s the calling. You get a little tongue-tied sometimes, but we’re going to be alright.”
The way that Stroud performed at Ohio State, the way he earned scholarship offers after excelling in Elite 11 competitions against Young, his friend. It all suggests that he’s ready to take the next step.
“It’s about accountability,” Stroud said after the Patriots game. “Just being accountable for myself and my mistake and learning from it. I’ve thrown a couple interceptions and I’ve thrown a couple touchdowns, and you don’t ever want to ride the highs or ride the lows. You want to just stay even-keeled. That’s what I plan to do is just learn from everything, learn from the good and the bad.
“I have a bunch of vets in there to help me every day with that type of stuff, and all of them are having nothing but great things to say, that I handled it well. It’s not easy to come to New England as a rookie and go in there and try to execute, but they felt like I did a decent job at that, so I’ve just got to keep growing.”
Aaron Wilson is a Texans and NFL reporter for KPRC 2 and click2houston.com.